The Frontal Cortex

The Cognitive Benefits of Nature

Thoreau would have liked this study: interacting with nature (at least when compared to a hectic urban landscape) dramatically improves improve cognitive function. In particular, being in natural settings restores our ability to exercise directed attention and working memory, which are crucial mental talents. The basic idea is that nature, unlike a city, is filled with inherently interesting stimuli (like a sunset, or an unusual bird) that trigger our involuntary attention, but in a modest fashion. Because you can’t help but stop and notice the reddish orange twilight sky – paying attention to the sunset doesn’t take any extra work or cognitive control – our attentional circuits are able to refresh themselves. A walk in the woods is like a vacation for the prefrontal cortex.

Strolling in a city, however, forces the brain to constantly remain vigilant, as we avoid obstacles (moving cars), ignore irrelevant stimuli (that puppy in the window) and try not to get lost. The end result is that city walks are less restorative (at least for the prefrontal cortex) than strolls amid the serenity of nature. Here’s the abstract of a new paper in Psychological Science [not online], by Marc Berman, John Jonides and Stephan Kaplan:

Attention Restoration Theory (ART) provides an analysis of the kinds of environments that lead to improvements in directed-attention abilities. Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.We present two experiments that show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities as measured with a backwards digit-span task and the Attention Network Task, thus validating Attention Restoration Theory.

I think you could also make a plausible case that being in nature induces a state of relaxation that is also conducive to insights, which I discuss in this New Yorker article.

The paper, “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” will be published in a forthcoming edition of Psychological Science. For more, see here.

Comments

  1. #1 Emmy
    November 10, 2008

    So Thoreau was a neuroscientist??

    I was reading my favorite excerpts from Walden last night and I agree that Thoreau was aware of the need to go into the woods to reorder our minds and think about for what we are laboring so manically. Although he wasn’t confronted with the overstimulating urban environment that we know today the things that demanded one’s attention were still there–the post, the plow, the lure of greater wealth (he also complains about fast moving wagons!).

    This study has very interesting implications, are all these forced fraying our attention to its limits?

  2. #2 Grant
    November 10, 2008

    a book on nature deficit disorder: LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS, Louv, updated 2008, is a good read on this.

  3. #3 Ally Reeves
    November 11, 2008

    I always enjoy your writing. This one in particular because the statement only makes me wonder more about the conditions in which this theory was “proven”.

    My in depth written response is here:

    http://100days.allyreeves.com/2008/11/11/100-days-in-the-news-day-fourty-eight-projectnature-you-terrible-beast/

  4. #4 Anibal
    November 11, 2008

    I totally agree. Humans have an aesthetic preference for natural landscapes due to their species evolutionary history and have evolved a “biophilia”: an adaptation to prefer habitats with trees, water…
    It is also known that patients recovered faster in a natural like setting than in other more artifical places.

  5. #5 t be
    November 11, 2008

    I am an artist (of both painting and sculpture) and can personally testify that time in the woods directly lead to decreased depression and anxiety for me last winter, as well as deeper creative insight. I have documented the process of installing my own sculptures in the woods for the last nine months, and have developed a deeper appreciation for natural abundance.

    Here is the work in the woods.
    http://www.project39.blogspot.com

  6. #6 Dan Staley
    November 11, 2008

    I read the pre-print on this paper, and this work extends previous work. I met the Kaplans while in grad school and since then I have learned to admire their work – Rachel with ‘nearby nature’ extending the ART – focus of Stephen. This paper focuses some of their findings that myself and other urban foresters and urban ecologists relate with respect to greening cities.

    One suspects Ally Reeves has neither read this work, previous work, nor write-ups of previous work, judging by her blog entry. That is: the point is that there is evidence that images of natural environments slow our brains down, their functioning having been overloaded trying to assess urban input. This slowing allows our brains to be “restored” so we can go back to directing our attention to sorting out urban inputs.

    These findings are in line with the anecdotes told above by Anibal and ‘t be’. I would also add that, as a gardener, I find tension draining out of my body through my hands when I work in the soil in my garden.

  7. #7 SSK
    November 11, 2008

    This study completely ignores the bias we grow up with that everything nature is good and, ahem, natural, and man-made is bad and a deviation. I can derive as much inspiration from man-made objects as I can with nature. In my walks around Toronto, I’m always admiring how traffic flows, how light reflects of streetcar tracks and wet pavement, and noticing order in mundane little things, so I do not agree with this at all. This paper reeks of this fundamental bias. The main point of this paper is “Me likey long vacations to countryside”, other than that, there is nothing substantiative.

    e.g. Look at page 176 of the paper. He lists the following as components of restorative environments.
    – Being away. Natural settings are often the preferred destinations for… BIAS
    – Fascination. BIAS. I’m as, or more, fascinated by urban environments
    – Compatibility. BIAS. I’m not very compatible with nature, b/c as a city animal, I’m accustomed to indoor plumbing

  8. #8 jfrancis
    November 11, 2008

    my guess is the principles above also extend to insights
    in writing poetry. i have often wondered where the insight-
    ful word phrasing used by poet to construct poems come from.
    such as Baby
    is the space
    between two hearts.
    this came to be in a burst as i held a card attached to
    a gift bag containing a baby shower gift.
    it has happened most often while i a taking a hot relaxed
    tub bath. amazing.

  9. #9 xznofile
    November 11, 2008

    True, not every city dweller lives off therapy and supersized fakefood, and not everyone in the country reads Thoreau. in fact it’s safe to say most don’t. it usually comes down to marketing to the right audience. With enough Yuppies, disillusioned from fixing their own plumbing, A “Back to the City” book might be a hot seller.

  10. #10 Dan Staley
    November 11, 2008

    ART is about whether our continuous scanning in urban environments requires our brains to recharge somehow. The theory is that nature (Rachel’s ‘nearby nature’) helps the recharge. The theory is not independent of inspiration from built environments.

    I note the comments subsequent to mine fail to make note of the fundamental aspect of the theory.

    As an aside, one may want to look at the design for new elder care facilities. Why? What do most of the rooms have? That’s right: views of nature. That is the point. There is no bias away from how wonderful city people are.

  11. #11 Herbal Amanda
    November 12, 2008

    There are also an interesting study on being in nature helping with ADHD cases in children. Could be related.

    A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study.
    Kuo FE, Taylor AF.
    Am J Public Health. 2004 Sep;94(9):1580-6

  12. #12 Dan Staley
    November 12, 2008

    Yes, Frances Kuo’s work builds off of the Kaplan’s work. Kuo & Taylor also look at greenery in public housing & find similar benefits – but social. They have also found children in nature learn better, and a Swedish study found that children with ‘natural’ play areas had better motor coordination and better attentional abilities than children in a day care center without a natural play area.. Views of green space from home are also linked to a greater sense of well-being and neighborhood satisfaction and urban residents tend to prefer interacting in spaces with high levels of green cover.

  13. #13 Jes
    November 12, 2008

    I also wonder if natural environments, being more visually fractal-rich are easier to encode and process mentally. It sounds like a long shot but fractal construction is a key part of living systems precisely because they are so information minimal, which may also enable the brain to deal with them more easily as well.

  14. #14 OftenWrongTed
    November 12, 2008

    Superb article, it reminded me something:

    The Absolute Necessity of Seeking Inspiration in Nature

    We may learn a great deal from books, but we learn much more from the contemplation of nature–the reason and occasion for all books. The examination of phenomena has a indescribably disturbing and leavening effect on our mental inertia–a certain exciting and revitalizing quality altogether absent, or barely perceptible, in even the most faithful copies and descriptions of reality. Santiago Ramon y Cajal, ADVICE FOR A YOUNG INVESTIGATOR.

  15. #15 Ben
    November 13, 2008

    A big problem with this kind of research is the narrow definition of nature. The ‘natural environment’ they describe is essentially a park. Take a walk in the woods in Colombia, Brazil, India…Florida and come back and tell me whether or not you engaged in ‘continuous scanning’. It’s only very recently in human history that natural environments haven’t require constant directed attention.

    Hunt much? Been hunted? Try taking a walk in a Central Florida hammock at dusk or even at night and see whether or not your mind remains vigilant. Not having to ignore irrelevant stimuli? Not needing to avoid obstacles? Not getting lost? What a very civilized ‘nature’ we are dealing with here.

    Even in long-since tamed and picturesque Britain, modestly involving terrain involves slippery rocks, cliff pathways, brambles, not to mention unfriendly cows.

    The fact that showing pictures of ‘natural environments’ had a similar effect to experiencing them directly should raise alarm bells. How much of this response is just a socially reinforced feeling of relaxation associated with scenes of Natural Beauty?

    The flip-side of this is that, as other comments here have pointed out, many man-made environments have low-intensity ‘intriguing’ stimuli. More interestingly, a city has just as much of a fractal form as a tree does so assuming you can get a good view of a skyline you can soak up soothing complexity from within urban environments too.

  16. #16 Dan Staley
    November 13, 2008

    The fact that showing pictures of ‘natural environments’ had a similar effect to experiencing them directly should raise alarm bells. How much of this response is just a socially reinforced feeling of relaxation associated with scenes of Natural Beauty?

    You haven’t read the Kaplan’s work.

    Why do I know this?

    They’ve answered this already. More than a decade ago. And it’s not about ‘soothing complexity’.

  17. #17 Artis
    November 14, 2008

    All in all, this research might verify once generally accepted idea of travel as a necessary part to one’s proper nurishment. It’ll be sufficient of me to quote Wikipedia:

    The idea of traveling for the sake of curiosity and learning was a developing idea in the 17th century. With John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) it was argued, and widely accepted, that knowledge comes entirely from the external senses, that what one knows comes from the physical stimuli to which one has been exposed, thus, one could “use up” the environment, taking from it all it offers, requiring a change of place. Travel, therefore, was necessary for one to develop the mind and expand knowledge of the world.

  18. #18 Alvaro
    November 14, 2008

    We will need to wait till the paper is published to answer the real question in my mind:

    Are those cognitive benefits one-time, sustained, or cumulative?

    In other words, is it more similar to drinking coffee or to doing cardiovascular physical exercise?

  19. #19 Dan Staley
    November 15, 2008

    Green spaces ‘reduce health gap’

    A bit of greenery near our homes can cut the “health gap” between rich and poor, say researchers from two Scottish universities.

    Even small parks in the heart of our cities can protect us from strokes and heart disease, perhaps by cutting stress or boosting exercise.

    Their study, in The Lancet, matched data about hundreds of thousands of deaths to green spaces in local areas.

    Councils should introduce more greenery to improve wellbeing, they said.

    Across the country, there are “health inequalities” related to income and social deprivation, which generally reflect differences in lifestyle, diet, and, to some extent, access to medical care.

    This means that in general, people living in poorer areas are more likely to be unhealthy, and die earlier.

    However, the researchers found that living near parks, woodland or other open spaces helped reduce these inequalities, regardless of social class.

    When the records of more than 366,000 people who died between 2001 and 2005 were analysed, it revealed that even tiny green spaces in the areas in which they lived made a big difference to their risk of fatal diseases.

    Although the effect was greatest for those living surrounded by the most greenery, with the “health gap” roughly halved compared with those with the fewest green spaces around them, there was still a noticeable difference.

    […]

  20. #20 Peter
    November 16, 2008

    I love cites, I’ve lived in cities my whole life. Natural settings are a nice get-away, but it’s equally possible to recharge in an urban setting. You just have to see the beauty in what’s in front of you. This post reminds me of an awesome VU lyric: “I’m sick of trees, take me to the city!”

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  28. #28 IlemaJones
    February 22, 2010

    I completely agree. Nature is really good to open up your senses, yet, not everyone is attached… (according to the comments, that is) Yet, there is always half and half for that – just spending a little time in the green and just as much time in the city. Or shall I say city/suburbs?

    Great blog entry, however. It opens a new window of thought. ^__^ (And I appreciate that)

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