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The Answers to Your Creative Questions Are Not Within You – They’re Outside

It’s Earth Day tomorrow, and chances are you’ll spend hours in front of a computer or other digital device and only minutes outdoors. Why would entrepreneurs and creatives and business people wanting to hone their edge need to take a walk or hike or, you know, plant a tree if they didn’t have to?

As the River Flows, So Do Thoughts
Last May, professor of psychology David Strayer explored that question and more. He rounded up four other neuroscientists for a rafting and camping trip in Utah’s wilderness. What business do five men fixated on the mind and brain have on the San Juan River rapids and the river’s tributary canyons? Research.

Strayer wants to start dialogue and more research into seminal questions about technology, nature, and attention: Does constant technology use adversely affect attention, emotion, and memory? How does prolonged time away from technology’s grip and in nature’s embrace affect the mind?

Strayer has his detractors and skeptics, but evidence and experience suggest he’s onto something. The more that mainstream culture becomes insulated in its digital interfacing, the more counter streams remind us that the great outdoors is great for the creative and spiritual indoors.

Most of the mind escapes our awareness. A good 95% of it, that is, by most cognitive scientists’ estimate. This foundational unconscious is emotional, intuitive, imaginative, sensual, and physical. And that 95% of unconscious impulses, hits, sensory input, and physiological functions shape the paltry 5% we know as good ol’ rational awareness. Ordinary mind.

So when you’re working on a design project or writing your memoir or trying to resolve a business problem, just how much of your mind are you bringing to your creative work? 5%? And just how optimally is that 5% functioning?

This is where the outdoors comes in.

Spending time outdoors optimizes the creative mind. Even the skeptical neuroscientists on Straver’s nature retreat admitted that after a couple of days of hiking and kayaking instead of checking e-mail and texting and reading articles on the Internet all day relaxed them and stimulated more fruitful thinking. As New York Times reporter Matt Richtel writes of the trip, “This is the rhythm of the trip: As the river flows, so do the ideas.”

Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, has studied and confirmed for years how relaxation heals the body and optimizes the creative mind.

Being outdoors also deepens and broadens your imagination’s reservoir. Images are one  foundation for how creative people – whether artists or CEOs or scientists – think through innovative problems. William Butler Yeats said that poets have a storehouse of images that they draw upon when they write.

But how do they fill that reservoir? They pay attention to objects and light and wind. They observe nuances such as how they feel while gazing upon a simple stone or cast iron fence. Why?

That simple act – pause and gaze and possibly praise– lets an image sink into that 95% of the mind, and part of that unconscious is a creative person’s reservoir of images.

Patterns of a tree’s alternating branches triggered an idea in Frank Lloyd Wright for how to stabilize tall buildings.

What’s filling your reservoir of images? What can you call upon in moments of creative and existential problem-solving?

Engaging the body outdoors also heightens focus – the cornerstone of considerable achievement among scientists, surgeons, chess players, athletes, and artists. Row a boat for thirty minutes, build a fence for two hours, or hike up a mountain for three hours, and your mind will feel calmer, more spacious.

Why? Your limbs and mind have a singular concerted and intentional task. Your breathing likely becomes deeper and steadier. Such breathing scientists have established is correlated with slowing down brain wave patterns in the frontal cortex to rhythms associated with concentration and alert relaxation.

Such moderated breathing also calms down the sympathetic nervous system.  That fact means that, even though you’re engaged in strenuous work and might feel exhausted after such exertion, your cells are not being fatally fatigued.

Such a state optimizes how those little neurons fire and how flexibly the mind can think about ideas. It’s in such a state that you also can become more aware of seemingly stray images and image-combinations (such as random metaphors) that might lead to break-through ideas for logos, brands, or a screen play’s seminal scene.

Earth Day for Creatives
You don’t have to take a vision quest for seven days in the Sierra Navada to reap the great outdoors awesome benefits.

Prime and Walk the Mind
Prime your mind and walk around the block. That is, read up on your problem or review your storyboard, and then take a walk with your awareness focused on simple sensory impressions – the quality of air, the patterns in the sidewalk.

Sit for the Grail
Find a sit spot. Animal trackers and outdoor survivalists recommend this simple practice. The idea is to find a place outdoors where you can go every day for 5, 15, 45 minutes and just sit and observe. A favorite park bench, chair in an alley, railroad track, a corner in your backyard, or field will suffice. Take a notebook with you. Date a page. Sketch. Observe activity – human or otherwise. Become intimate with the spot day after day.

This simple practice helps you hone that foundational quality among all successful people – paying attention. “Attention is the holy grail,” David Strayer told the New York Times reporter. And here’s one way to get the grail and a little fresh air.

Plug in the Body Electric Outdoors
There’s increasing mounds of evidence that shows how the body’s regular and intentional movements optimize the mind. Couple that movement with the outdoors’ sensory input. Do something simple that puts the body in regular rhythm and focused on a simple task outdoors. Unfold and put up a hammock. Build a tree house for your kid. Canoe at a nearby lake. Take a yoga class in a park.

Step Outside. Of Yourself.
If you want to be exceptional at what you do, step outside. Step outside of yourself and your rote patterns.

It turns out that the great answers to your questions might not be tucked within you.

The answers to your creative challenges might be outside. Or, rather, in the dialogue between the two.

And when you step into that dialogue, you enter the wonder of wonders.

Drop in the Hut
What about you? How do you engage the outdoors as part of your creative process? How do you balance out digital interface time with natural interface time? Do you think the ideas above are nuts?

See you in the woods,

changing the way creativity happens in the studio, on campus, in the workplace
A hut of questions blog
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at PsychologyToday
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