Expansive Thinking Through Natural Settings

Expansive Thinking Through Natural Settings

Co-investigators: Gwenyth Dobie & William J Mackwood


Across our nation, and around the world, one can find artist residencies offering natural settings: forests, deserts, beaches, or ocean vistas. The implication being, these wide-open, sparsely populated spaces, free the mind for expansive, uninterrupted thought process. While there are studies indicating that an immersion in nature can improve higher-order cognitive performance (Atchley et al. plos.org), the conditions under which those benefits were achieved were unique, and rarely found in current artist retreats (ie. complete immersion in nature for four days without interruption). In addition, the quantitative-measurement of creativity, indeed even defining, “what creativity is, and what it is not, hangs as the mythical albatross around the neck of scientific research on creativity” (Prentky 97). This, together with identifying, isolating and quantifying the multitude of psychological and causal factors influencing creativity has proved to be challenging.

Though we are aware of the difficulties, the benefits are too great to ignore. A recent study commissioned by the Government of Canada entitled Innovation for a Better Canada (2016) reports that “Innovation starts with the creativity and ingenuity of people” (10). Our proposed research study agrees with this premise and posits that more conversation and opportunities are necessary in Canada for creative, innovative thought both within and outside the arts. For as the Innovation for a Better Canada study warns, “other countries are doing more and moving faster to spur innovation” (1).

We have historical precedence, a preponderance of anecdotal evidence, and the prima facie reality of a multitude of artist residencies situated and promoted around the idea that access to nature benefits creativity. However, if we accept those benefits as a fait accompli, we, as researchers, are driven to ask, what elements of a natural surrounding are the most effective for the creative thinker? How do managers of residencies balance the benefits of nature with the realities of participant’s familial and professional responsibilities, or the need for creature comfort and relaxation with the rigors of the great outdoors? Is it the removal of distraction, or immersion in nature that benefits creativity, and if both, in what balance? Through a qualitative research methodology, this investigation will seek answers to the preceding questions.

This investigation is the first step in the long-term objective of developing a new centre for innovation on the west coast of Canada, will offer the co-applicants an opportunity to investigate existing artist residency facilities situated in natural surroundings within Canada. We aim to search out how, precisely, nature, or natural surroundings promotes creativity and innovative thinking. This new knowledge will, in turn, increase the understanding of those offering support to interdisciplinary researchers, contributing new perspectives on the efficacy of their facilities and methods.


Artists seeking inspiration through nature is certainly not a new phenomenon. In his book Artists on the Edge: the Rise of Coastal Artists’ Colonies, 1880-1920, Brian Barrett explains that the coastal settings offered artists “freedoms to explore new avenues of interest, personally, and away from the narrow confines of the academic curriculum” (Barrett 104). The artist colony movement (that eventually spawned the Arts and Crafts Movement) in the United States was born out of an “underlying utopian theme: preservation of the simple life, nostalgia, and set of values threatened by industrialization” (Aldrich ii). It may still be true that artists seeking residencies outside urban areas are pushing away from the distractions and interruptions of modern life as much as being drawn to the natural settings.

Today, the organization ResArtis, promotes just under six hundred artist residence centers in over seventy countries around the world, with almost half of those being in a rural setting, while a further ninety boast nature, or a natural setting (res artis). The Alliance of Artists Communities lists fifteen hundred programs worldwide, with sixty percent of those in rural settings. The listed residencies are not only for artists as they list twenty “Arts + Ecology Residency Programs” offering programs: “engaging the public with environmental themes”, “fostering rich collaborations between artists and scientists” and “supporting residencies that welcome leaders across fields and disciplines” (Alliance). In our own creative work with Out of the Box Productions we have always searched out nature settings such as Long Beach, Vancouver Island, or rural Salt Spring Island to hold our ‘new work’ development retreats. The connection and benefit between a natural setting and the effect on creative, innovative thought, for us, has always been self-evident.

While others have studied, for example, the effects of walking on creativity (Oppezzo et al), or the effects of interruptions on creativity (Wang et al), or the restorative benefits of nature (Kaplan), this unique study will investigate the synthesized factors that lead to increased creativity in a natural setting through a qualitative methodology. Our investigation will first attempt to resolve the overall question, why do creative people seek natural settings to enhance their creativity?

In his article, “The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework”, Stephen Kaplan points to the “significant role that directed attention, a key psychological resource, plays in coping with challenges. In this perspective the role that natural environments play is a powerful one. Experience in natural environments can not only help mitigate stress; it can also prevent it through aiding in the recovery of this essential resource.” His argument would indicate that people heading for residencies in natural settings may be doing so because they are tired or stressed, which may not necessarily be the case, though it is a factor worth exploring.

In a study on the “Effects of Interruptions on Creative Thinking” the investigators found that “one’s creative thinking could profit from intermittent interruptions of low- cognitive resource requirements. However, when encountering interruptions that consumed excessive cognitive resources, one’s creativity was hindered” (Wang et al. 7). And so, if a participant in a residency manages to avoid the moment-to-moment interruptions of modern life and technology (i.e. cellphones and internet distractions), this study would indicate an increase in creativity might result, and perhaps that may indeed be one of the major benefits of the residency the getting away. How realistic it is for participants to withdraw from their lives, given the ubiquitous and unrelenting pressure to stay in contact will be another area of investigation.

If restoration were the sole objective, the conditions would be easier to quantify as there are, in fact, identifiable criteria we seek for a restoration. For example, Kaplan identifies four components of a restorative environment[1] (174):

-‘Being away’, most often meaning a natural setting, even if that natural setting is found locally.

-‘Fascination’, in particular, soft fascinations (clouds, sunsets etc.) that hold attention but leave ample room for other thoughts.

-‘Extent’, a restorative environment must be of sufficient scope to engage the mind, to take up a substantial portion of the available room in a one’s head. Even a small area, well-designed, can provide a sense of extent.

-‘Compatibility’, for many people, the natural environment is experienced as high compatibility, as if there is special resonance between a natural setting and human inclinations.

Still, at the very root of it, as we begin to measure the effects of a restorative natural setting, or the removal of interruptions that consume excessive cognitive resources on the creative process, the challenges mount, for the very task of defining creativity is problematic for quantitative research. In his article ‘Quantifying Creativity: can measures span the spectrum?’ Dean Simonton points out, somewhat tongue-in-cheek I assume, “Unfortunately, researchers have been somewhat too creative in their definitions, with over a dozen possibilities being suggested in the literature”. He goes on determinedly to forge a three-part definition: (i) novel or original; and (ii) useful, adaptive, or functional (iii), surprising or “nonobvious”. However, as he turns his attention to the measurement of creativity as defined, he states “it turns out that the options are, if anything, too numerous” and in regards to a comprehensive, cross-domain test for creativity, he concludes that “no such instrument exists”, though he does offer suggestions for future research (100-101). We will therefore take a qualitative approach.

We aim to identify the various benefits sought after and possibly realized by the participants of creativity residencies set in natural surroundings. We will then synthesize the findings to offer qualitative evidence regarding the efficacy of strategies found in these types of residencies. The findings will benefit those who offer nature residencies and those who attend them, plus academics, non-academics, artists and innovators. At the very least, it will encourage a comprehensive discourse and exchange of research knowledge on the effects of nature on creativity and innovative thinking within and beyond the arts sector.  We will enhance the profile of creative spaces and current practices of innovation in Canada.

[1] a condensed and/or paraphrased version of the list.

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