Environmental psychology researchers at the University of Michigan have confirmed what many have long-suspected: spending time in a natural setting is good for the brain (at least for its ability to retain important information). Study subjects learned better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban setting. Conversely, previous studies ( also conducted by Marc Berman et al) have shown that living in a dense urban environment actually impairs cognition and self-control.
It is believed that urban environments present an excess of stimuli, information and choices to our brains, leaving them fatigued. This spate of recent research comes at a time in human history when (for the first time) a majority of people live in cities.
Researchers note that our harried urban lives afford us little time for mental refreshment, and so we take numerous small breaks (“micro moments”). But these do not provide the benefits that longer breaks provide–in fact, they make our brains more fatigued in the long run. But research shows that a walk in Nature can restore our brains and improve learning.
Cities constantly present our brains with a diversity of new experiences. Unlike the diversity in Nature, however, these urban experiences can be disruptive, stressful and often accompanied by negative emotional states. These effects tend to impair basic cognitive functions.
Studies conducted at the University of California, San Francisco on rats (perhaps not ironically), showed that new experiences were accompanied by new neural firing patterns in the brains of the rodents. However, only when the rats were allowed to take a break from these new stimuli were they able to process the experiences (i.e., the new neural patterns) in a way that allowed for retention of the experience.
The non-stop stimuli of city life may be inadvertently promoting short attention spans; there is simply too much going on vying for our ever-limited attention.
In fact, according to environmental psychologist Stephen Kaplan (also of the Univ. of Michigan), attention is the crucial mediator between green space and psychological benefit. Urban environs place continuous demands on what’s known as directed attention. Natural environments, on the other hand, allow our directed attention to rest. What’s more, they engage a different form of attention that he calls fascination. This involuntary form of attention improves mood, directed attention and cognition.
Kaplan’s research has lead him to formulate his theory of restorative environments. These restorative settings have more biodiversity than a typical urban “green space” or city park, and they certainly provide stimulation–but not stimulation that provokes a negative emotional response. Simply put, this type of environmental stimuli allows our brains to relax. His theory is also known as attention restoration theory (ART).
An earlier study (Fuller et al) exploring the relationship between one’s mental health state (an effect termed reflection, i.e., the act of gaining perspective, clearing one’s head, etc.) and perceptions of green space diversity, showed a positive correlation between this reflection capacity and greens space biodiversity.*
It seems that the diversity in natural settings provides, or perhaps triggers, this different form of attention by providing a more interesting, but less stress-inducing, field of perception. Biodiversity, even in an urban environment, plays a key role in proper mental functioning.
Other studies of city dwellers have shown a positive correlation between having a view of trees and personal happiness. The field of environmental psychology has its roots in ecological psychology (founded in 1947 by Roger Barker) which sought to reveal how social settings influence behavior.
Environmental psychology studies such as these are now prompting urban designers to plan with Nature in mind (more green spaces, parks, bike trails) and to preserve natural features — such as trees — wherever possible. Organizations have emerged to specifically address the psychological needs of urban dwellers.
One such org, PPS (Project for Public Spaces), is a New York City based nonprofit (founded in 1975 by Fred Kent) that works to improve public spaces, particularly parks, civic centers, public markets, down towns, and campuses
Author’s note: I am fortunate to live in a moderate-sized city (Seattle) that provides rich cultural experiences AND easy access to natural environs; our “emerald city” has over 360 parks within its borders. In some of these, like Discovery Park and the Arboretum, one can actually get lost in, for a time.
* But no correlation between reflection and bird and butterfly diversity.
In general, the study found that more biodiverse and more complex green spaces better permitted personal reflection and provided more restorative benefit than did less diverse areas.
bottom photo: A bicycle trail in Granbury, Texas; public domain
population map: Sbw01f , CC – BY – SA 3.0