Creativity in the Wild

Wild people are smarter! The first study of its kind to test cognitive skills during sustained wilderness travel has revealed that we think better – 50% better – when we’ve been walking for days in the backcountry, cut off from our electronics. Not a big surprise, given our brains were formed by two million years of computer-free wilderness immersion, but the implications are fascinating. The University of Kansas study was the first of its kind to test participants’ cognition while they were still immersed in nature (on an Outward Bound trip), and its results are dramatic:

Getting oriented in the great wide open. Kennedy Meadows high country, Domelands Wilderness in the southern Sierra. Photo by Malena Marvin.

Getting oriented in the great wide open. Kennedy Meadows high country, Domelands Wilderness in the southern Sierra. Photo by Malena Marvin.

“…four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creative, problem-solving task by a full 50%.”

The authors suggest this half again jump in brain power

“…comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.”

One example of what I like to call "wild design."

One example of what I like to call “wild design.” (If this is your photo, let me know so I can credit you!)

This information certainly puts a few exclamation points on the Nature of Design’s education programs, where design work is integrated with 4+ days in the backcountry specifically to see how this immersion impacts creativity and the design/build process. But the paper’s results also point to a tangential line of inquiry. If an “increase in exposure to natural stimuli” makes us more creative and intelligent, then wouldn’t it be smart of us to integrate more “wild design” into our cultural habitat?  In this sense, the study is fodder for re-naturalizing our built environment, and on a large scale.

The authors do note the difficulty in parsing out the effects on their participants of prolonged time in nature from the concurrent prolonged separation from electronics. All we know from their study is that extended outside computerless creates conditions conducive to sharp, creative problem solving. Is it then time to design for the decentralization of electronics?

This research is worth some deep consideration, and action. What would life look and feel like if the majority of our days were spent outdoors (or in structures designed with the materials and patterns we see outdoors) and we were completely cut off from the electronic umbilical? How would the resulting 50% increase in our cognitive ability change the choices we make about our livelihood, our health, our relationships? How would these choices affect the future of our species?

Review the research online:

Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474



Nature of Design heads to 2013 Biomimicry Conference

This year’s Biomimicry Education Summit will happen in conjunction with the Global Biomimicry Conference in Boston, June 2013.

I’m thrilled to go to Boston this June to present the Nature of Design at Janine Benyus’s Global Biomimicry 3.8 Conference and Education Summit. I’ll speak as part of a panel of educators who do innovative biomimicry education for adults in the field and in the classroom, and will focus on the course I’m developing for Yestermorrow Design/Build School.

This is an awesome opportunity for me and the Nature of Design project to get our message out there, and to learn tools of the trade from all sorts of practicing biomimicry experts and educators.

Check out the Biomimicry 3.8 website, and consider the Global Conference from June 21st-23rd, 2013.

Travels in human nature – the Albany Bulb

ouladybwAmericans have been busy transforming the east shore of San Francisco Bay since the late 1800s, filling in tidal marshes with parking lots and in the process trading dynamic ecological function with industrial barrens. An ambitious lightbulb-shaped peninsula appeared off the Albany shore in 1963, laid down with construction waste as a future landfill. But legal action halted the flow of trash in 1984, and the “Albany Bulb” was given back to nature, time, and chance.

albany bulb - google map

A Google Map screenshot of the bulb projecting west from the East Bay shoreline.

In the last 30 years or so, wildness has reclaimed this space we reclaimed from the bay. The 25 acre rip rap and rebar base has been colonized by a vibrant succession of plants and trees, many of them “invasives.” But even if you view the non-natives as unnatural (and I hope you will not), you’ll agree the process by which they appear is consistent with “natural” ecological succession around the globe. I know of no effort to intervene and ecologically “restore” the Bulb, likely because its nonlinear history quickly deflates our assumptions about ecological restoration. Restore exactly what to its conditions when?

Bulb Shoreline

Wild nature sometimes means concrete and invasives.

Early in the ecological succession of the Albany Bulb, some keystone species appeared: homeless humans and Bay Area artists. A small community of semi-temporary dwellings has resisted waves of law enforcement, perhaps helped by the Bulb’s unique geography and cultural ambiguity. It’s now part of the East Bay Parks system, but its free-for-all technicolor murals and rip rap shoreline feel more urban than they do natural or park-like.

Several human-shaped sculptures stand watch over its northern shore, including a 12′ woman with a cascade of tree branch hair, scrap metal skirts, and driftwood arms raised to the sky. Intentional or no, the sculpture embodies the peninsula’s deft meanderings between the worlds of culture and nature: a human made of trash, and of the earth. Where our engineers failed to consider ecological function and biodiversity in the creation of the Bulb, our artists have participated gracefully in its ongoing environmental design.


Trash for skirts and sticks for hair, Our Lady of the Bulb.

Spending a morning walking the Bulb’s trails and shorelines, as I have just done, is good for perspective. It’s a place where our world is mixed up on a scale and register we are not used to. Sea water twinkles and swirls around its concrete beaches and tinny music radiates from the tent dwellings, carried by a breeze along the water. The colors of the rainbow are painted on its concrete, rocks that we’ve already ground and processed, built, torn down, and thrown “away.”

At the top of the promontory, on a gentle knob facing Golden Gate bridge and surrounded by thickets of brush, we found an old walking labyrinth. Though many of the chunks of concrete serving as its markers had been displaced by weather or overgrown by lush grasses, the pattern of the spiral footpath was obvious. We added our steps to those before us, transforming the ground as we followed a densely twisting path defined by an absence of forks or choices.

Bulb history from Wikipedia

Walking the labyrinth, Albany Bulb


We move in circles

Shiniki Maruyama's nudes.jpgSubsisting, as many of us do, on a daily diet of angled buildings and neighborhood grid patterns, can lead to a default definition of humanity as fundamentally square. We navigate right angles from our first steps to the bathroom in the morning to the four way stop we cycle through on the way home from work. If our built environment is an expression of who we are as a species, we might assume our kind are markedly linear and composed of angled planes.

Shinichi Maruyama‘s nudes strip the angles off our bodies, documenting that as we move, we embody patterns that flow deeper than the squares that define modern culture. His composites of 10,000+ stills of human dancers fluttered through design and photography blogs late in 2012, earning thousands of “likes.” But what is it, exactly, that so many of us like about these images?

The biophilia hypothesis states that we have an innate love of other living things. It follows that we also have an inherent fondness for the patterns that give rise to those living systems. The circle may be one of the most pervasive shapes in our universe, and Maruyama’s work exposes that shape expressing itself through our bodies. We see that even as we are moving through the grids of our culture, we are drawing circles with our limbs that even conscious effort could not disavow. We are always tracing something that neither begins nor ends, down beneath our clothes, without need of conscious thought.

Shinichi Maruyama's nudes 2


Shiniki Maruyama's nudes 3