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Interviewees: John Jonides and Marc Berman, University of Michigan
Mother Knows Best
Are you feeling the strain of work? Have you lost focus and is your mind feeling about as sharp as the wooden rulers you had in elementary school? Scientists have some advice for you. Advice, it turns out, that your mother already told you a long time ago: Go play outside.
But, it turns out mother was only partly right. John Jonides, University of Michigan professor of psychology and neuroscience, and graduate student Marc Berman have one big condition to that advice: A walk in nature sharpens the mind, but a walk in the city does not.
They found this out by performing an experiment that they published in the journal Psychological Science. They gave volunteers memory and attention tests and then sent them out on a walk. Sometimes they got instructions to walk in the university’s urban home of Ann Arbor and other times they walked through a nearby arboretum.
Berman says they then tested their memory and attention again and “found that when the participants returned from the nature walk, they showed a 20 percent improvement (in the tests) but showed no improvement when they returned from the urban walks.”
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Why the difference? It has to do with something called the Attention Restoration Theory. It says we all have two kinds of attention. Directed attention is when we pay attention to something because we need to — like work, or school, or something else that takes a lot of concentration. We eventually tire, often lose focus, and need to take a break.
The other kind is “involuntary attention.” It captures your attention simply because it interests you. What’s interesting might vary from person to person, but as Berman says, “You don’t hear very many people say, ‘Boy I really got tired out looking at that waterfall.’”
He adds, “The idea behind the theory is that if you’re in an environment that’s rich with inherently interesting stimulation, it’s going to activate the involuntary attention and allow the directed attention to rest.”
But an urban walk has lots of interesting things, so why doesn’t it work? Says Joindes, "When you’re walking in an urban environment you need to be careful that you don’t get run over by a car, you have to be careful that you don’t bump into somebody walking down the street." In other words, your brain is still in work mode.
But in a nature walk, says Berman, “There typically isn’t this distracting stimulation, so the person can kind of defocus in some sense, or mind-wander.”
While the researchers tested only a nature versus urban walk, there could be other ways to defocus for a while. Berman notes that “a museum might have similar effects” because there’s interesting stimulus but no distractions “where you need to be vigilant.”
One might think that the volunteers did better because the walk put them in a better mood, but the researchers also tested the volunteer’s moods both before and after the walks and found that didn’t correlate with the test results.
In fact, the researchers also tested the volunteers in all kinds of weather, from pleasant summers to the rough winters of Ann Arbor. Says Berman, “When people walked in cold weather they still got the same (cognitive) improvement as in the warm weather. They just didn’t enjoy the walks as much.”
But what if you can’t go outside? The researchers did a second experiment where they had people just quietly look at pictures. Just like for the walks, when the pictures were of nature, scores went up, but volunteers who looked at pictures of cityscapes showed no improvement.
Berman says this has implications for planners, “in terms of how they’re designing living environments,” or by those designing work environments in order to help them “get better productivity from employees.”
This research was published in the December 2008 issue of Psychological Science and was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the University of Michigan.
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