The study, however, didn't analyze how much exposure the participants had to electronic distractions back at home, or other kinds of distractions, such as stress at work or family problems.
Also, those who took the test while hiking just may have been more creative overall than the other group. In addition, it's not clear whether another factor that has nothing specifically to do with exposure to nature -- such as an increase in daily exercise -- could explain the boost in creativity as judged by the test.
Atchley acknowledged these shortcomings and said the researchers haven't ruled out an effect from exercise. "The point of this study was to really say, 'Wow, what a big effect, something matters here, something is improving creativity.'"
Paul Zak, chairman of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, said that although the study was provocative, it had substantial flaws and wasn't designed well enough to allow any strong conclusions. For instance, it didn't address what the non-hikers were doing before they took the test that could have affected the results, he said.
James Kaufman, professor of psychology at California State University at San Bernardino, said the study overreached by trying to make technology a villain. "Technology also inspires people to be creative," he said. "It's a straw man."
Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, said another factor may be at play: novelty. "Creativity is frequency enhanced when we are obliged to break out of our habitual daily routine, whatever it might be," he said.
The study appears in the Dec. 12 issue of the journal PLoS One.
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