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Do Urban Settings Really Exhaust Us More Than Natural Ones?

Aesthetics, not greenery, predict how tired we may feel.

Key points

  • Urban scenes that are as aesthetically pleasing as natural scenes don't take as great a cognitive toll on us.
  • Nature offers many health benefits but if you can't access it, finding a visually appealing environment can help lower stress.
  • How much we like our surroundings, regardless of how natural they are, has a huge impact on how recharged we feel.
Photo by Lucas Vimieiro from Pexels
Source: Photo by Lucas Vimieiro from Pexels

If you’ve ever found your thoughts to be clearer or your mood a bit brighter after spending time in nature you already know what decades of research tells us: Nature isn’t just good for our emotional health, it can also improve cognitive performance.

Several studies suggest that urban environments are simply more mentally taxing than natural ones—in part, researchers believe, because urban environments often bombard us with more attention-draining and sensory-overloading sights, sounds, and smells. (This helps explain why people tend to exhibit signs of mental and physical fatigue more readily when walking around in urban environments versus natural ones or when viewing images of urban versus natural scenes). But a recent study by Daria Burtan and colleagues at the University of Bristol challenges the notion that urban environments are inherently more draining than natural ones. According to Burtan’s findings, how taxed we are by our surroundings has less to do with whether they’re man-made and more with how much we like where we are or what we’re looking at.

What the Study Entailed

Burtan and her fellow researchers sought to investigate whether urban scenes would really be perceived as more draining than natural scenes if those urban scenes were as aesthetically pleasing and interesting as the natural ones. She recruited 50 participants (the vast majority, women in their 20s) to walk towards 50 images of urban scenes and 50 images of natural scenes that were displayed in random order and projected onto a wall 15 meters away from one end of a laboratory. All images had been rated 7/7 for likeability beforehand by an independent group. Some participants were instructed to memorize the presented images while walking. Others were asked to rate how uncomfortable the images were to look at.

Each participant was also outfitted with sensors that tracked their walking pace and step length, which provided a proxy for mental taxation. Such “gait kinematics” have been shown in other studies to reflect cognitive load—how tiring something is to our attentional and memory faculties—with decreased speed and increased variability in gait reflecting greater cognitive load.

Previous research (also by Burtan and colleagues) found that participants walked slower and took lengthier steps when walking towards images of urban settings compared with natural ones. But this time around her team found that provided the images were matched in terms of their likeability (both rated a 7/7) they elicited no significant differences in walking speed or step length among participants. They also found, not surprisingly, that the more visually uncomfortable participants experienced an image (regardless of its urbanness or naturalness) the slower they walked towards it.

“It thus seems that cognitive load differences evoked by exposure to urban as opposed to natural images observed in earlier studies do not arise when images are controlled for their population-defined liking scores; by presenting pairs of images in which the respective nature and urban images had similar aesthetic rating score,” Burtan et al. write in a recent edition of PLoS ONE. "This observation is in line with ideas that the more one likes the environment one is in, the less cognitively demanding it is."

Photo by Vitaliy Mitrofanenko from Pexels
Source: Photo by Vitaliy Mitrofanenko from Pexels

Intriguingly Burtan's team also found that participants instructed to remember the images they walked towards were more likely to remember the urban images than the natural ones. This would seem to contradict the wide body of research suggesting that natural settings are less exhausting and more restorative to our brains, allowing them to remember more and improve attention. But Burtan et al. suggest that the relative lack of memory for natural scenes compared to urban ones among her participants could result from urban scenes requiring more cognitive processing resources than natural scenes, therefore making a stronger impression on the brain, since a mild to moderate amount of stress (which cognitive load can feel like to the brain) can actually enhance memory formation.

What This Means for the Rest of Us

If our level of mental fatigue is based more on our surroundings' aesthetics than greenery, we may not have to rush off to a park or forest to recharge after all. Provided we can get ourselves to a setting we find visually appealing, we may still be able to gain that much-needed mental refreshment in the middle of long, stressful workdays or challenging time periods in our lives.

It's important to remember nature does offer benefits that more paved and tree-less settings don't. Among them: Compounds emitted by plants have been shown to improve our immune functioning. But if you're limited in your ability to access nature, head towards a neighborhood near your office or home (or, more simply: find a room) that you consider aesthetically pleasing and see how much better you feel. You might also consider viewing images that you find aesthetically pleasing in general, like art that appeals to your senses or cute images of animals—both of which have been shown to reduce stress and help calm us down, leaving us more restored and recharged for whatever life hands us.

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