The Power of Green

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

It’s not just fresh air that helps clear your mind when you take a walk in the park — simply being around plants and trees has a beneficial effect, too.

What can numb pain, make you a better person, and help you concentrate?

A plant.

It may sound far-fetched, but it’s true. While big pharmaceutical companies spend billions trying to come up with new medications to improve concentration or reduce stress, some researchers are focusing on a cheaper and far more simple approach: using nature to help people feel better.

In the last 24 years, the number of hours people spend outside has dropped dramatically. Back in 1987, the average American spent 25 percent more time outdoors. Today, he spends 90 percent of his time indoors, 5 percent in his car and only 5 percent outside. “After 50 years of increasing popularity, to the point that going to a national park was the iconic American family vacation, sometime in the late 1980s everything shifted regarding nature recreation,” says conservation ecologist Dr. Patricia Zaradic of the Red Rock Institute, a privately run scientific research center. “The Internet was born, video games and movies became more accessible, and all forms of electronic entertainment became increasingly popular.”

Yet research continues to show that being outside and, importantly, simply being around greenery in the form of plants and trees even when we’re inside, makes us feel good. It might seem obvious why relaxing under a big chestnut tree in your backyard would make you feel good; it’s less clear how plants in an office environment or a school also make a dramatic difference — improving productivity, ability to concentrate, increasing recovery rates and reducing stress. But studies show that plants do just that.

Office Plants Increase Productivity

Space is at such a premium that often items such as plants are removed from office buildings and yet research indicates that working in an environment containing plants actually improves work performance. Researchers from Washington State University have undertaken many studies looking at the relationship between nature and well-being. For one such study, they set out to find out whether plants have an effect on people’s ability to concentrate in the workplace.

The researchers checked the blood pressure, pulse rate, and emotional condition of 96 participants, first in a computer room with bare walls and no daylight, then in a similar room with plants. Participants underwent a timed computer-based test which asked them to match randomly displayed shapes on the screen by pressing a key. Although each group made a similar number of mistakes, the plant group showed a 12 percent faster reaction time; their stress levels were significantly lower, too, and their blood pressure and pulse rates returned to normal more quickly following the test.

Plants Help People Recover From Stress More Quickly and Reduce Pain Perception

Taking the scenic route is something most commuters reserve for vacations, but it might be a good idea to try it on the way to work, too.

Researchers at Texas A&M University had study participants do simulated driving along either scenic roads or in built-up areas where there was little or no greenery. What they found was that the scenic-road drivers were able to recover more quickly from stressful driving situations, and the positive effect lingered: Drivers who had enjoyed the scenic simulation responded more calmly to stress later on.

Green-leafed life forms in pots also appear to have the power to make you feel less pain. Dr. Virginia Lohr and her colleagues at Washington State University found that being in a room containing plants enabled study participants to endure discomfort — keeping their hands submerged in icy water — longer than those who didn’t have plants around.

An Effective Way To Increase Concentration

The inability to focus can greatly hinder a child’s development and school work. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects many children in the U.S. — estimated at between 8 and 10 percent of school-age children — and some take medication such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) to treat its symptoms. Yet research undertaken by Andrea Faber Taylor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that a simple walk through a green area improves concentration as effectively as the drug.

Another study from the same university looked at children living in identical apartments, except that some had views of trees and grass and others didn’t. What they found was that children who could view nature from their windows had better concentration.

Brings Out The Best in You

If you’ve ever pondered the best location for asking a friend or relative for a loan, this information might help you: According to research from the University of Rochester in New York, exposure to nature, even in the form of a plant at home or in the office, makes people more generous. One of the studies had participants look at images of natural or non-natural scenes as they listened to instructions advising them how to be aware of their environment. They were told to focus on the colors or textures, and to imagine what they might hear or smell in that scene. The participants were also asked about their life goals, before and after viewing the scenes. In a similar study, the researchers gave participants a $5 prize, saying they could keep it or give it to an anonymous participant, who would then be given an additional $10.

What the researchers found was that those individuals who had viewed the natural scenery were far more likely to value intrinsic goals over more extrinsic goals. They also found that study participants who’d been exposed to greenery were more likely to give their $5 away — the more immersed the participants were in nature, the more generous they became.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

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