Changing Our Brains in a Good Way

Nature can help calm our overactive, multitasking brains.

Posted Jul 30, 2015

A recent New York Times article presented interesting work by Gregory Bratman, a Stanford University graduate student. Bratman and his colleagues gathered two groups of students and after scanning their brains and giving them a questionnaire had half walk for 90 minutes in a park while the other half walked next to a loud highway. After returning they again had their brains scanned and completed a posttest questionnaire. Bratman found two main results. First, the students who walked in the park showed slight improvements in their mental health and were not ruminating about the negative parts of their lives as much as they had done prior to the walk. More interestingly, I think, the blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex was reduced and quieted. The subgenual PFC is thought to be the seat of “morbid rumination.” In an earlier study comparing the park walk and the highway walk, Bratman found that nature walkers showed “decreased anxiety, rumination and negative affect and preservation of positive affect as well as cognitive benefits (increased working memory performance).” As working memory has been shown to be housed in the prefrontal cortex this study highlighted a specific cognitive benefit of a nature walk.

First, I think it is important to see this as one study in a new rush of brain scanning research. With tools such fMRI, EEG and fNIR we now have the vehicles to demonstrate brain changes as a function of a specific task. Second, interpreting brain scans is both a science and an art and as such these results should be considered ripe for replication and expansion. Third, it is important to understand that everything we do, say, hear, think and feel has an impact on our brains. Our actions and thoughts direct blood flow to brain areas and lead to changes in our neurotransmitters.

Having said this, I should note that I am gratified to see this expansion of Attention Restoration Theory (ART) which asserts that noisy environments make it more difficult for us to filter out excess auditory, visual and even olfactory stimulation and thus leave less ability to provide “top down” attentional control which makes it more challenging for us to use our mental resources to plan our actions. In spite of our brain being a magical organ it is limited in its resources and anything that commands additional resources (such as working hard to ignore the sounds and smells of traffic) leaves few resources for “thinking.” In contrast, ART predicts that natural environments lead to a different type of “bottom up” attention, which does not tax our limited attentional top-down processing resources.

In iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us, I wrote about ART as a suggestion for overcoming the increased activation that researchers have found due to technology use. Based on the data, my overriding suggestion was that, based on research on the impact of nature a brief 10-minute walk should be sufficient to calm and “reset” ones brain.

The bottom line is that we all lead very hectic lives and, according to all the research spend excessive amounts of time multitasking or task switching from device to device, app to app, website to website. We don’t seem to be able to stop ourselves and truly believe that we can do an effective job of juggling more than one task. In a 2008 study, my colleague Dr. Mark Carrier asked adults from three generations—Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Generation X (1965-1979) and the Net Generation (1980-1989)—if they felt that they could or could not pair certain tasks together at the same time. Some were easy like texting and listening to music while some were more difficult such as playing video games and reading a book. Across 66 pairs—including many technologically-driven tasks as well as talking face to face, eating and reading a book)—we found that Baby Boomers stated that they attempted 59% of them, Gen Xers 67% and Net Geners 75%. In late 2014 we replicated these results and 8 years later each generation had increased their belief of how many tasks they could, indeed, do at the same time. Baby Boomers increased to 67%, Gen Xers to 70% and Net Geners to 81%. Interestingly, Dr. Carrier and our research team were able to also include adult members of the iGeneration (defined as being born in the 1990s) who claimed they could multitask 87% of the pairs!

In a recent pilot study I asked members of my upper division general education class to download and use an app called “Instant” that assessed how often they unlocked their smartphones each day and how many minutes they kept it unlocked (presumably thumbing through apps). The students who had smartphones with Android OS or iOS used Instant while the rest kept track of their own usage. All students collected data during final exam week, a time when they should metacognitively reduce their technology access and allocate time for studying. The 147 app users opened their phone an average of 58 times a day for a total of 180 minutes yielding about 3.1 minute per view. The 69 diary users who only recorded the amount of time they estimated spending on their smartphone totaled 220 minutes per day. Taken as a whole, students who are supposed to be studying were spending at least three hours a day on their smartphones. The more important result is that they were only allotting about 3 minutes per look and most likely using multiple apps during that time. I will be having this semester’s students use the app during the entire semester so we can track usage over a longer time period and hopefully discern problem times when more checking in behavior occurs.

Taking a short nature walk will most certainly calm our overactive brains. Other activities have been shown to do the same including mindful meditation, exercise, looking at art, listening to familiar music, practicing a musical instrument or a foreign language and more.


How often should you do this? I recommend heeding Nathaniel Kleitman’s BRAC observatio, which asserted that similar to his data on sleep cycles, we have Basic Rest and Activity Cycles of about 90 minutes, and do something other than use your technology about every hour and a half to 2 hours. On a more microscopic level I have also written in my other Psychology Today posts about other precautions you can take to keep your brain calmed and rested including where you keep your smartphone when you sleep and other suggestions for brain health including developing the ability to take brief technology breaks starting with learning to “survive” 15 minutes without accessing electronic communications to allow you to focus on work and avoid FOMO or fear of missing out which drives those constant checking in behaviors.