Research shows that the ‘3-day Effect’ is the key to truly getting out of your rut.
In writing his book, The Comfort Crisis, Michael Easter spent more than a month deep in the Arctic backcountry. This, naturally, put him in some sketchy situations. Like the afternoon he encountered a grizzly bear the size of a Chevy Tahoe. Or the morning when his Hanwag boots froze into ice blocks after he and his buddy crossed a river in minus 20 temps. Or the night a wolverine snooped around his campsite. (“Those animals will tear your face right off,” explained his hunting buddy, Donnie Vincent, in his Minnesota accent.)
Yet despite those quick spikes in stress, he reported in his article in Huckberry that he was overall the calmest, most collected he’d ever felt. His brain was feeling less hunkered down in its typical foxhole—a state he compares to that of a roadrunner on meth, dementedly zooming from one thing to the next. Instead, his mind felt more like it belonged to a monk after a month at a meditation retreat. In his words “I just felt . . . better.”
Further, when he returned from the wild, his Zen-like buzz hung around for months. To understand what was happening, he met with Rachel Hopman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Northeastern University. She told him that what enchanted his brain is a certifiable scientific phenomenon. It even has a catchy name: “the three-day effect.”
Spending three techless days in wild, it turns out, is like an extended meditation retreat. Except talking is allowed and the experience is free of costs, gurus, and headache-inducing Nag Champa.
But we’re not talking about just parking your Range Rover at a camp spot and pitching your ten room tent in a camp ground buildout near some trees. Experiencing the three-day effect requires a trip into what we might call “backcountry nature.” Places that begin where dirt roads end. Places characterized by spotty cell reception, wild animals, and a lack of bathrooms and other humans.
Research into the three-day effect was spurred on by Ken Sanders, a Salt Lake City legend, rare book dealer, and longtime friend of environmental writer and general badass Edward Abbey.
“I’ve long been aware of the metamorphosis or transformation that occurs on day three of wilderness trips.”
“From decades of river rafting going back to the 80s I’ve long been aware of the metamorphosis or transformation that occurs on day three of wilderness trips,” Sanders told Michael Easter from his bookstore in Downtown Salt Lake City.
Sanders happened to mention his personal experiences with the three-day effect to David Strayer. Strayer is a hardcore nature junkie and a University of Utah neuroscientist who is the world’s foremost expert on how cell phones effect attention and the brain.
For Strayer the phrase was less of a tagline and more of a lightbulb moment.
With all of Stayer’s years backpacking through the red rock canyons of Southern Utah, he’d experienced the buzz himself. That calm, altered spectrum of thinking that seems to enhance perception, peacefulness, and dial back time and space. He’d even had conversations with friends and other psychologists who’d experienced the same. But he’d never heard a timeline stamped on it. He wondered if the three-day effect was something he could study.
Strayer gave it a try in 2012. He found that people scored 50 percent better on a creativity test after three techless days in the backcountry. Strayer thought he might see an improvement by day three. But 50 percent? That’s no fluke.
It was enough to establish the three-day effect as a concept worth chasing. The research has been building since. Another study found that people who spent a handful of days paddling the water of the Minnesota backcountry scored much higher on an creativity test compared to people who took it indoors. Another piece of research discovered that vets who spent six days on a backcountry trip saw their stress symptoms plummet.
We now know that the three-day effect doesn’t wash off once we’re back home. Scientists at UC Berkeley found that US military vets who spent four days rafting in southern Utah were still feeling the effects a week later. Their PTSD symptoms and stress levels were down 29 and 21 percent, respectively. Their relationships, happiness, and general satisfaction with their lives were all better as well.
Which brings us back to Strayer and Hopman. Strayer started a class that delves into the psychological benefits of nature. Hopman was his graduate student at the time. For the course’s capstone, the two would take the students camping for four days into one of the most remote spots in the lower 48: the Sand Island Campground outside of Bluff, Utah.
On day one, Hopman strapped complicated brain-wave measuring devices onto the skulls of the students. Three days later, she retested them.
The students’ day-one brain waves were what are called beta waves. These are frenetic, type-A, go-go-go waves. But by day three they were riding what are called alpha and theta waves. These are the same waves found in experienced meditators or when you lapse into an effortless flow state. These rare waves reset your thinking, revive your brain, tame burnout, and just make you feel better.
The discomfort isn’t so bad. It is, in fact, a welcome sensation that signals a calmness and feeling of life satisfaction.
It usually happens like this: On the first day in the backcountry, our stress and health markers improve, but we’re still adjusting to the discomfort of nature. We’re thinking about how it sucks to be cold, missing our phone, and still focused on the anxieties we left behind—what’s happening at work and whether we closed the garage door. By day two our mind is settling and awareness is heightening. We’re caring less about what we left behind and are beginning to notice the sights, smells, and sounds around us. By day three, we’re dialed in and we can reach a fully meditative mode of feeling one with nature. The discomfort isn’t so bad. It is, in fact, a welcome sensation that signals a calmness and feeling of life satisfaction.
“You don’t really see the good alpha and theta waves appear in the short excursions outside,” Hopman told me. “That’s why taking a yearly backcountry trip each year is so important.” We in the chronically stressed modern world are riding high, violent beta brain waves more often than any humans in history, and the message is clear: Get out there.