Choke

What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to

Greening Your Brain

Some environments, like nature, bring out the best in people

Summer is over, which means that many of us are back to school, back to work, and back to city life. City living can be taxing. Navigating crowded downtown streets, dealing with constant noise and general urban chaos can send even the most dedicated city dweller over the edge. Yet, as it happens, there are some pretty simple things you can do to counteract the negative aspects of urban life. One is just taking a little time out to spend in the park.

Philosophers, writers and laypeople alike have long suspected that interacting with nature can have positive benefits on our cognitive functioning, creative abilities and even improve overall well-being. In the last several years, scientists have begun to confirm these ideas.

Take work by Dr. Frances Kuo, who runs the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois. Dr. Kuo studies the relationship between people and their physical environment and her research has revealed that trees and greenspace serve a bigger function than just being aesthetically pleasing. Simply put, viewing nature seems to enhance people's cognitive functioning.

In one study Kuo found that inner-city public housing residents randomly assigned to relatively 'green' high-rise apartment buildings, meaning that they had views of trees and grass rather than a vacant cement lot, scored higher on tests of attention and memory than did residents assigned to relatively 'barren' buildings.

In another study, Dr. Kuo found that university students with 'all natural' or 'mostly natural' views from their dormitory room windows showed enhanced concentration abilities relative to residents with 'mostly built' or 'all built' views.

So, why might being exposed to green space improve cognitive functioning? The answer goes back to William James, one of the founders of modern-day psychology, who made a distinction between two types of attention. James observed that certain things in the environment are effortlessly engaging, and draw on what he called involuntary attention: "strange things, moving things, wild animals, bright things. . ."  When situations and stimuli don't effortlessly engage us, we need a voluntary or directed form of attention instead, James suggested.

Scientist liken voluntary or directed attention to a mental muscle that can wear out over time. The idea is that when we are in nature, the intriguing stimuli (e.g., a beautiful sunset) modestly grabs our involuntary attention, which gives our directed attention time to rest and replenish.

This is in direct contrast to being in the middle of a crazy urban environment. Cities contain things that capture involuntary attention dramatically - for example, the horn of the car that is just about to run you over. In addition, navigating an urban environment requires a lot of directed attention to overcome temptation (e.g., consciously steering clear of advertisements). In short, urban environments tend to be a lot less restorative than natural ones and this is precisely why researchers  think that nature is so beneficial.

Interestingly, you don't have to spend a lot of time in nature to get the mental benefits. A few years ago, a group of researchers at the University of Michigan gave undergraduates an attention task in which they heard digits such as 1, 4, 7, 3, etc. and had to recall them in the reverse order (so here, 3, 7, 4, 1). This  task depends on directed-attention abilities because participants must move items in and out of focus to correctly repeat back the numbers in reverse order. People did the attention task both before and after they took about an hour or so walk in the Ann Arbor arboretum or through downtown Ann Arbor streets.

The results were pretty clear. Performance on the attention task significantly improved when people walked in nature, but not when they walked downtown. These results were not driven by changes in mood, nor were they affected by different weather conditions. Simply put, nature has its mental benefits.

Given that more than half of the world's population now lives in cities and that exposure to urban chaos is unavoidable for many of us, figuring out how to get the best out of city life while minimizing the mental side-effects is important. As it happens, a walk in the woods can help.

For more on tuning the brain for peak performance, check out my book Choke!

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Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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