Does Nature Influence How We Think?

Trees and Mountains

Sheep River, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Rodney Steadman.

So, does nature influence how we think? According to recent research out of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, connectedness with nature may influence cognitive styles. The research team, led by Carmen Lai Yin Leong, conducted two studies with Singaporean secondary students as participants. In the first study, Leong and her team examined how connectedness with nature correlated with innovative and holistic cognitive styles. The second study explored connectedness with nature and its potential to predict cognitive styles.

The first study consisted of 138 adolescents (46 percent female) with an average age of 15 years. Participants completed an online survey consisting of questionnaires that measured connectedness to nature, nature relatedness, analytic versus holistic thinking preference, and creative style (innovative or adaptive). The results showed statistically significant correlations between connectedness with nature and innovative and holistic thinking. Innovative thinkers are open-minded, whereas, adaptive thinkers, at the opposite end of the scale, prefer a framework of systems and seek efficiency. Holistic thinkers focus on the big picture and emphasize the interconnectedness between the object of their observation and its surroundings. At the opposite end of the analysis-holism scale are the analytic thinkers who prefer to analyze an object in a linear fashion and apart from its surroundings.

Study 2 was designed to replicate the findings of Study 1 using pen and paper and investigate if connectedness with nature predicts cognitive styles while controlling for well-being and demographics. The researchers collected data from 185 adolescents (47 percent female) with a mean age of 13 years. The results of Study 1 were replicated in Study 2. Furthermore, the connectedness to nature scale was a statistically significant predictor of cognitive styles after controlling for well-being and demographics. Specifically, Leong and her team found that high connectedness to nature scale scores were significantly associated with higher tendencies for holistic and innovative thinking.

The authors argue that activities in nature such as hiking can be physically demanding and involve various forms of risk as well as experiences of natural beauty. Therefore, individuals who venture into nature have to be open-minded to navigate challenges posed by the natural environment. It is this open-mindedness that can also produce innovative ideas. Furthermore, activities in a natural environment expose enthusiasts to various ecosystems and the interconnectedness of the natural world. The authors argue that understanding the complexity of nature requires holistic thinking.

Leong and her team recommend “repeated interactions with nature” at both school and home. These interactions “are crucial in developing a sense of connectedness to nature” and enhancing cognitive styles.

Rodney Steadman 25 August 2014

Works Cited

Leong L, Fischer R, & McClure J (2014). Are nature lovers more innovative? The relationship between connectedness with nature and cognitive styles Journal of Environmental Psychology, 40, 57-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.03.007

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