For a neuroscience lab, it sure is cold. Maybe 20℉ or so, judging by the sting on my exposed cheeks. Indeed, an observer would be hard-pressed to see any traditional research going on here. There’s not a single white coat, MRI, or PET scanner to be found. I don’t have a sensor stuck to my scalp. Instead, I’m snuggled in a sleeping bag, surrounded by sagebrush and willow deep within a red-rock maze of hulking sandstone cliffs. But science will be done. It’s my fourth morning in the wild, and I’m supposed to take a cognitive test that’s part of a groundbreaking research project. And I will, as soon as my fingers thaw enough to grip a pen.
The sunrise colors the Ancient Puebloan ruin to the east, and I hunker down in my bag, waiting for the rays to reach my tent. When they do, I unzip the door so I can see the warming sky and unfold the test. Behind me, assorted rustlings and yawns tell me that my five campmates are doing the same thing. The six of us represent the very first step in a cognitive pilot study aimed at exploring a question every reader of this magazine will find intriguing: Does backpacking make you smarter?
The researchers who designed this experiment hypothesize that exposure to nature causes significant, measurable changes to the brain. These changes let you think more clearly, focus more acutely, and perform to your maximum cognitive ability. In short: Wilderness makes you smarter. And the longer you’re out there (up to a point), the smarter you’ll get. Recent studies have already linked wilderness exposure with stress reduction and overall happiness. I can’t help but ponder the ramifications of all this as I consider the first question on my Remote Associates Test. This canyon in southern Utah may not look like an academic setting, but the neuroscientists behind this study could prove that trail time actually makes the brain perform better. Compelling evidence would make hiking a lock for the good-for-you activity hall of fame, to be sure, but that’s not all. Imagine a world in which backpacking becomes the science-recommended way to prepare for the SATs, chess tournaments, and all of life’s biggest mental challenges.