Does the mountain lifestyle make you smarter?


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Mountain climber
The Deep Woods
Nov 3, 2011 - 05:47pm PT
Isn't "the mountain lifestyle" dumbed down climbing clothing for Boulderites?

Nov 3, 2011 - 10:02pm PT
Harvard's 1650 charter explicitly states its intention to promote the "education of English and Indian youth of this Country in knowledge and godliness."
For some years... the rough-hewn Cambridge campus was a place where Indians and whites pursued knowledge side by side. Both were required to know Latin and Greek to win admission. And wampum was legal tender for tuition - the cost of a year at Harvard was 1 pound, 6 shillings, 8 pence in English currency. Or roughly 1,900 beads of purple quahog and white whelk.

Upon being invited to send another group to Harvard, one tribe replied:

"We are very grateful for the opportunity of instruction in the ways of the white man. But when our young men returned from their years at your great school, they could neither hunt, nor fish, nor fight, nor find their way in the woods, and were in fact good for nothing. However, if you would like to send us some of your students we will endeavor to instruct them in all the skills necessary and becoming of men."

(rough paraphrase from memory from Touch the Earth, by T. C. McLuhan)

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Nov 3, 2011 - 11:31pm PT
Good one. Meanwhile, if you have any doubts about the mountain lifestyle enhancing intelligence, just check out the "What is Mind" thread.

Boulder climber
I'm James Brown, Bi-atch!
Nov 4, 2011 - 01:34am PT
i get hustled ever day up here in the sticks, frickin hillbillys seen me comin,

"oh high there dr sprock!"

after i only visit the hamburger joint one time,

how do they know this? memorize every frickin customer?

try that in the big city,

more like "give me your grocery money and get the f*#k out..."

Topic Author's Reply - Dec 23, 2012 - 01:17pm PT
In a randomized design, a new study demonstrates that backpacking without access to media improves creative problem solving abilities. Further evidence that the answer is likely: yes, the mountain lifestyle makes you smarter.

Here is the abstract and link to the full article. (My bold for emphasis)

"Adults and children are spending more time interacting with media and technology and less time participating in activities in nature. This life-style change clearly has ramifications for our physical well-being, but what impact does this change have on cognition? Higher order cognitive functions including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking are all heavily utilized in our modern technology-rich society. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that exposure to nature can restore prefrontal cortex-mediated executive processes such as these. Consistent with ART, research indicates that exposure to natural settings seems to replenish some, lower-level modules of the executive attentional system. However, the impact of nature on higher-level tasks such as creative problem solving has not been explored. Here we show that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50% in a group of naive hikers. Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting. We anticipate that this advantage comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions. A limitation of the current research is the inability to determine if the effects are due to an increased exposure to nature, a decreased exposure to technology, or to other factors associated with spending three days immersed in nature."

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Dec 23, 2012 - 01:26pm PT
The premise could be true as long as bouldering at the Buttermilks is not
considered as part of the 'mountain lifestyle'.

Topic Author's Reply - Dec 19, 2014 - 02:54pm PT
a nice review:

"We have reviewed many studies that demonstrate impacts of nature experience on human cognitive
function and mental health. These effects have been shown to occur in measures of memory, attention, concentration, impulse inhibition, and mood."

Social climber
my abode
Dec 19, 2014 - 03:32pm PT
"All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking".

(Stolen from Reinhold Messner's Facebook page...)

Trad climber
Dec 19, 2014 - 04:42pm PT
Here's the conundrum, if it is true... Smarter and what are you going to do with it? I live in a mountain town with about 3 good jobs in total. Who cares if you're a smarter lifty of nail bender than you would be in the city?

Topic Author's Reply - Dec 20, 2014 - 07:45am PT
Chugach, you're right. and you got me thinking. thanks!

improved memory, attention, and impulse control, per se, are not likely the primary (or even secondary) reasons folks spend time or choose to live in the mnts. more of an unintended positive consequence. but, these cognitive benefits -- which are in a domain called "executive functions" -- are also not unrelated to the reasons why time in nature is appealing: the positive effects (cognitive, emotional, and health wise) that the mnts have on us are, indeed, some of the pros in the "pros v cons" of life choice decision-making moments... such as the one you evoke = live in mnt town vs. move to a place with more high-quality jobs.

the qualitative evidence of this is seen when asking a climber, skier, (or surfer minus the mnt), etc. the big "why" questions: why would someone choose the mnt lifestyle over a "better" job? why do we love climbing and spending time in the wild? ...the bottom of the logic hill in those answers is often what the mnt lifestyle does for our brains and our bodies.

the emotional part of this story seems pretty obvious to most: if someone says they enjoy the mnts, they probably do. but, prior to this line of (mostly) randomized experiments, evidence that time in the mnts improved memory, attention, and impulse control was based on anecdotes. the kind shared around the campfire. and when it comes to cognitive functioning, many neuroscientists, psychologists, and education researchers believe there is no better place to get bang for your buck than with executive functions...they matter for nearly every domain of living life well. just as we have speculated around the campfire: time in the mnts improves focus, leaves us less distracted, more "in tune", "in the flow", etc. etc.

I'm preaching to the choir, but around the campfire and those family and friend (holiday) dinners (when it isn't just the choir) conversations about "why" often come least with my family and friends...and these data can be relevant.

Mountain climber
Anchorage AK, Reno NV
Dec 20, 2014 - 08:24am PT
I'd suspect immersing in any unfamiliar environment stimulates the brain for a bit.

Probably the opposite scenario would have a similar effect. Take a person who rarely goes to an urban environment and measure that after a one hour visit.

Topic Author's Reply - Dec 20, 2014 - 08:48am PT
^^indeed, failing to disentangle novelty from nature is a limit to the rct's with children and adults from urban/suburban environments, but in the studies that have (see the Coley work earlier in the thread) it doesn't look like rural children benefit from urban experiences in the same ways that nature appears to affect the brain. getting effects on executive functioning is notoriously difficult -- many nsf, nih, and foundation funded interventions have failed to do so.

novelty and breadth of experience is good, but generally does not have long term implications for working memory, attention, and impulse control (it affects knowledge rather than the cognitive systems that control how you use that knowledge).

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Dec 20, 2014 - 09:19am PT
Most of these studies seem to refer to intermittent exposures to "nature," whatever that is exactly, rather than long-term immersion. (The exceptions are the aboriginal studies and the rural vs. urban children studies, but all they seem to be saying is, unsurprisingly, that if you live in a natural setting, you will be better adapted to understanding and thinking about the issues associated with that setting.)

There is nothing that says the (outlandish) increases in cognitive function associated with brief exposure to nature will be increased with longer immersions. Even if these brief exposures have the claimed effects, there is nothing to say that there isn't an optimal exposure period, after which cognitive decline results. Indeed, the language of "restorative function" suggests a stimulation dynamic that alternates between the high-demand urban environment and the low-demand "natural" environment. If you live continually in a natural setting, there would be, in the language of the quoted studies nothing to "restore."

Successful physical training seems to consist of a sequence of peaks, followed by declines in performance, followed by higher peaks. If anything like this is true for cognitive functioning, then the "mountain lifestyle," whatever that is exactly, might turn out to be mostly "restoration" and not enough "stimulation."

The almost unbridgeable red-blue divide in this country suggests that urban and rural environments lead to almost incompatible intellectual perspectives, so much so that one has to wonder whether one can even speak of cognitive development independent of the natural and social environment.

If there is any message, I'd say that it is that variety is better than sameness. If true, the "mountain lifestyle" will confer whatever it confers, but increased cognitive capacity won't be on the list.

P.S. I'm just a lowly mathematician, and have no real idea what I'm talking about here.

Topic Author's Reply - Dec 20, 2014 - 11:19am PT
rgold, I think your speculation about non-linearity in the relation between time in nature and exec functions is well founded -- it would be very, very surprising (or "outlandish") if the effects were continuously incremental in a positive fashion, even at high doses. nearly all dose-response relations demonstrate diminishing returns. one interesting question here as elsewhere = at what dosage level/threshold(s) would we expect a leveling off...or as you (more provocatively) suggest might the curve start back down. (I'm more skeptical of the latter)

your point about there being nothing to restore for those continually living in a natural setting seems to be another way of saying "baseline levels" of exec function might be higher for those in the natural setting (all other things being equal). that seems important, right? as you note, much of the theoretical arguments these authors provide is centered on the possibility that urban contexts make cognitive demands that undermine exec function which exposure to nature can restore. but you'd have to clarify for me why it makes much practical difference as to whether those in natural settings would have higher exec function because they weren't exposed to the contagion versus they have higher exec function because the nature literally improves exec functioning. the practical implications seem indistinguishable to me, but interesting to consider. did you ideas of why this might be important from a practical perspective?

[footnote = it would silly to argue that urban environments have nothing to offer our cognitive development and it would be naive, if not silly, to expect linear dose-response effects or to argue that rural living has ubiquitous positive effects on cognition. I deliberately evoked these idea in the thread title and op, but I was being facetious. here is an alternative title: "are lab and field experiments with short-duration exposures to nature relevant for understanding the potential consequences of the mountain lifestyle versus the urban lifestyle?: does living in close contact with nature offer small, but practically significant, executive functioning benefits and/or more complex/nuanced understandings of nature's ecosystems?"]

Topic Author's Reply - Jun 16, 2015 - 02:11am PT

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Jun 16, 2015 - 08:47am PT
It's true, all the great snipers have been country boys (and girls in Russia).
Jon Beck

Trad climber
Mar 29, 2018 - 09:57am PT
Climbing will make you smarter, yes Reilly, even Buttermilks bouldering

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Mar 29, 2018 - 10:02am PT
No....but I was smart to choose it.

Mar 29, 2018 - 10:07am PT
Smarter at what?

Trad climber
South Pasadena, CA
Mar 29, 2018 - 12:02pm PT
Cragar and MH2 are striking closest to my first reactions:
1. Smart is a measure of competence in a domain that has not been clearly specified
2. We adjust to what is required by our environment.

Take a nature granola kid and make him summarize what is happening on a TV show while he also texts with a group of friends and tries to beat a high score in a video game... you might see a melt-down and think the nature kid is stupid.
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