Walking in nature restores your attention

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A walk in nature not only improves your mood, but also your attention. This is evident from a new study by University of Utah which measured the brain activity of several walkers walking through either a natural or an urban environment.

Just a short walk of an hour in nature has a positive influence on our brain, researchers have shown Max Planck Institute for Human Development previously. “Walking in nature is good for our brain and mental health,” says researcher Sonja Sudimac. But walking in nature also helps to improve your attention span, according to new research University of Utah.

The researchers concluded this after they gave 92 participants attention tasks before and after the participants took a forty-minute walk outside. In addition, the brain activity of participants was measured with electroencephalography (EEG) before and immediately after the walks. One half walked through the botanical gardens at the university, while the other group wandered around the paved medical campus.

Attention test
“Before we started the study, we had participants complete a very exhaustive cognitive task where they counted backwards from the number 1,000 in steps of 7,” said researcher Amy McDonnell. “No matter how good you are at mental arithmetic, it becomes quite tiring after ten minutes.” Immediately after this mental exhaustion, participants underwent the first attention task. In this task, participants were shown a series of letters and had to press a button when they saw a letter that was not the letter ‘X’. The test is harder than it seems because you tend to respond to every input. In this way, the researchers could measure how good the participants’ ‘response inhibition’ was. In other words: how well you can suppress an automatic response. Something that requires a lot of attention.

Walk
After the walk, the researchers repeated the test. It showed that the participants who had walked in nature were better at the attention task after the walk than before. While the city walkers showed no difference. “So then we know it’s something unique about the environment you’re walking in,” McDonnell said. “We know that exercise is also good for attention, so we have ensured that both routes are comparable.”

Brain activity
In addition, EEG data showed that this nature walker group had more brain activity in the frontal areas of the brain, which are involved in executive control. In contrast, the urban walkers had increased activity in the parietal areas of the brain: parts involved in sensory processing. “This suggests that the nature walk restores attentional capacity by improving executive control processes, while the urban walk further depletes attentional capacity by increasing sensory processing,” says McDonnell.

Broad context
The research adds to the growing scientific literature on how natural environments contribute to a person’s physical and mental health. McDonnell and colleague David Strayer therefore hope that their findings can be refined to show which natural environments result in optimal cognitive benefits, and how much exposure is needed to help. “If you understand something about what makes us mentally and physically healthier, you may be able to design our cities to support that,” Strayer said.

Primal need
It is not exactly known why our bodies revive so much in nature. Many researchers suspect that this is a ‘primal need for nature’. “There’s an idea called biophilia that basically says that our evolution over hundreds of thousands of years has led us to have a greater connection or love for natural living things,” says Strayer, professor of psychology. The fact that we now have less access to nature would endanger our health. “Our modern urban environment has become a dense urban jungle with cell phones and cars and computers and traffic, the exact opposite of that restorative environment.”

According to the researchers, it is therefore important to create and maintain more green spaces in urban areas, and to encourage people to spend more time in nature.

A subject walks through the University of Utah’s Red Butte Garden in 2022 as part of the attention study – Amy McDonnell, University of Utah

The article is in Dutch

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