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The creative process

Nature's impact on the brain

Fernanda Pérez-Gay Juárez obtained an MD degree in Mexico City in 2013. Upon her arrival in Montréal, she pursued a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at McGill University, where she now works as a researcher and scientific popularizer. Passionate about mental health, she is particularly interested in the transformative potential of artistic practices: the ability of the arts to generate emotional and cognitive states that play a central role in our lives.

The postdoctoral researcher was kind enough to answer our questions and reveal the secrets of nature's influence on the brain and the creative process. Read on to discover the neural mechanisms that echo birdsong.

Parc national du Mont-Orford Parc national du Mont-Orford
Parc national du Mont-Orford Mikaël Rondeau | © Sépaq

What does nature trigger in the human body?

Spending time in the forest has a soothing effect on body and mind. For a number of years now, researchers have focused on measuring the positive impacts of exposure to nature and understanding how it reduces our instinctive fight-or-flight response.

It's a well-known fact that such exposure reduces stress. "In concrete terms, this means a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones such as cortisol," points out Dr. Pérez-Gay Juárez. What's more, being in contact with the forest increases positive emotions - making us calmer - and decreases negative emotions, such as fear.

A walk in nature can also restore attention. Let's take an example: imagine yourself right downtown, bombarded by noise and lights, trying to retain all the information that comes your way. Let's bet that your brain will be oversaturated with stimuli and will lack the resources to process the things that are really important.

Conversely, effortless contemplation of nature involves involuntary attention, otherwise known as "soft fascination." When the mind wanders, it freely chooses which stimuli deserve focus: rustling leaves, the sound of a stream, birdsong, and the like. In so doing, it allows the voluntary mechanisms of attention and the nervous system to recover. Away from everyday concerns and the hustle and bustle of the city, our brains take a vacation, which improves mental health, cognitive capacity, memory, and concentration.

Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie
Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie Mikaël Rondeau | © Sépaq
Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie
Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie Mikaël Rondeau | © Sépaq

What brain processes are involved in creativity?

First of all, Dr. Pérez-Gay Juárez points out that there is no single part of the brain involved in creativity. It's a process that requires the interconnection of several brain networks - a group of brain regions that connect to form complex behaviours, such as observing a landscape, ruminating during a game of chess, or deciding whether to cross a street. According to research by Roger Beaty of Harvard University, three main networks play a role in the process.

1. The default mode or imagination network

When the mind wanders freely, without a specific goal in mind, the brain regions of the default network become more active than when we’re engaged in a specific task. This is what happens when we take a walk in the forest and new ideas emerge naturally, without being forced.

2. The attention or executive control network

This network is activated when you want to concentrate on a specific task, when you're in the office drafting a report, for example. The only problem is that the idea or solution you're looking for doesn't always come at the right time.

3. The salience network

This network plays a special role in the creative process. It detects important, new, or out-of-the-ordinary thoughts from the default network, then directs them to the attention network for evaluation and execution.

According to Roger Beaty's research, the more creative a person is, the more the three networks communicate with each other, enabling new ideas to emerge naturally and sometimes even - for the luckiest among us - creating the highly touted "Eureka moment."

In addition, a peaceful environment helps to activate the default network, while reducing the activity of the attention network, thus allowing new ideas to emerge naturally, and if we really hit the jackpot, leading to revelation. This is why the best solutions often emerge during a walk in the fresh air or while taking a shower!

Banc sur le bord de l'eau

How does nature influence the creative process?

Creativity plays a crucial role in many areas of our lives. It's associated with problem-solving, academic success, professional achievement, and the ability to adapt to our environment.

According to Dr. Pérez-Gay Juárez, two theories can explain the influence of nature on the creative process. First, Kaplan's attention restoration theory, which suggests that spending time in a natural environment allows the brain to rest from the mental fatigue caused by directed attention. The notion of "soft fascination" is important here, as the attraction we feel towards aesthetically pleasing environments is effortless. Away from the daily preoccupations and over-stimulation we often experience in the city, our minds are freed, which fosters the emergence and evaluation of new ideas, a fundamental aspect of creativity.

Then there's the wandering mind theory, associated with the default network mentioned earlier. This involves the decoupling of attention, i.e. the ability to ignore external stimuli in order to allow thoughts to circulate freely, within oneself, so as to create novel associations.

Dr. Pérez-Gay Juárez explains that forest activities help trigger these two complementary processes. "During experiences in nature, individuals can alternate between periods of soft fascination and mind wandering. Attention is first drawn to fascinating aspects of nature, then free to wander inward afterwards," she describes.

The result? When we're in contact with plants and trees, both processes occur simultaneously. Thanks to this synergy, our brain restores its attentional resources while generating new ideas.

Inspiring nature

According to the researcher, the concept of divergent thinking is a key element: one thought leading to another, and then another, fostering creativity. "Getting outdoors or engaging in artistic activities stimulates this exploration of the brain. Whether it's creating several versions of a drawing or dancing without holding back, our creativity can express itself freely, without being in solution mode," sums up the researcher.

What's more, this capacity for innovation is not limited exclusively to artists. Medicine, science, and technology… creativity is everywhere! It's ubiquitous and accessible to everyone; you just need to take the time and give yourself the space required to unleash it. And this is exactly what a nature hike or retreat can provide!

Karina Durand

About Fernanda Pérez-Gay Juárez

Fernanda Pérez-Gay Juarez, a medical doctor in Mexico, is currently pursuing a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at McGill University. As a postdoctoral researcher and science popularizer, she is interested in the links between art, neuroscience and well-being, while preparing to start a residency in psychiatry at McGill University in July 2024.

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