Apparently, the path down memory lane is lined with trees. So claims the study, “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” by Dr. Marc Berman and his colleagues at the University of Michigan. They found that people’s scores on tests of memory and attention improved by 20% after taking a walk in an arboretum. A control group who walked in the city showed no such improvement.
Of course, the restorative effects of nature have long been known. What better way to take a break from our harried modern routines than spend a weekend in the country?
It may seem obvious, but when science investigates common sense it often yields uncommon insights. Would you have thought, for example, that just looking at a photo of nature could improve your memory and concentration? Berman’s study discovered just that. One group was given a photo of a nature scene, and the other group a photo of a busy city street. The people who looked at the landscape scored better on subsequent memory tests.
Dr. Stephen Kaplan, the creator of attention restoration theory (ART), posits that our brains have two ways of paying attention. Involuntary attention is always on — it’s our “spider-sense” that alerts us to potential dangers or opportunities in our environments. The more stimulation we receive from our surroundings, the more this type of attention is automatically engaged.
Directed attention is when we consciously choose to focus on an object or task. To effectively direct our attention, we must filter out everything clamoring for our indirect attention. Hence, if we walk down a city street, surrounded by other people, cars, shops, and restaurants — all potential threats or rewards — the high volume of activity can overwhelm our capacity for direct attention. Taking a nature walk, or just zoning out to a picture of a landscape, releases our indirect attention and frees up our mental resources to tackle directed tasks.
It doesn’t end there. A study has shown children with attention deficit disorder demonstrate better self-control in natural environments. Other studies have suggested that all the stimulation from the city reduces everyone’s self-control, while increasing our aggression.
All those temptations (bargain handbags, cupcakes, and lattes) and potential threats (buses, cars, and crowds) take so much mental energy to evaluate that our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is responsible for reasonable, controlled behavior, gets pushed to the limit. We are much more likely, amid all that stimulation, to splurge on something we can’t afford, eat something we shouldn’t, or get mad at something we should just shrug off.
This doesn’t mean we all have to move to the country. But it does indicate that we all need to find the time during the day to give our brains a break and let them replenish themselves. That could mean a walk in the park, contemplating a photo on your desk, or just closing your eyes and picturing yourself somewhere peaceful. Your brain will thank you for it.
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.