How a walk in the great outdoors boosts attention and cognitive abilities

Nature walks enhance brain's executive control processes


Researchers from the University of Utah have provided scientific evidence that spending time in nature not only benefits the heart and soul but also enhances attention and cognitive abilities. Using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity, the research team found that a walk in nature stimulates certain executive control processes in the brain, going beyond the benefits associated with exercise alone. This study adds to the growing body of scientific literature that highlights the positive impact of natural settings on physical and mental health.

The research, led by Amy McDonnell and David Strayer, contributes to the emerging field of "Nature and Human Health," which aims to explore the relationship between nature and well-being. With the establishment of the Nature and Human Health Utah research group, the University of Utah is committed to addressing the human-nature divide and proposing solutions to bridge this gap.

According to Strayer, the dense urban jungle that characterizes modern urban environments, with its constant distractions and technological advancements, is in stark contrast to the restorative environment that humans have evolved to connect with. This concept, known as biophilia, suggests that humans have a primal need for nature and that the diminishing access to natural environments poses a risk to our health.

The study by Strayer's Applied Cognition Lab conducted at Utah's Red Butte Garden involved 92 participants who underwent a 40-minute walk either through Red Butte, the lush arboretum in the foothills, or through the nearby asphalt-laden medical campus. Prior to the walk, participants were subjected to a mentally draining cognitive task, followed by an attention task. The purpose was to deplete their attentional reserves before measuring their attentional capacity.

The results revealed that those who walked in nature showed an improvement in executive attention, while the urban walkers did not experience the same cognitive benefits. This finding suggests that the environment itself plays a unique role in enhancing attention and cognitive abilities. However, it is worth noting that exercise also benefits executive attention, so both groups were ensured comparable amounts of exercise during the study.

What sets this study apart from previous research in this field is its reliance on EEG data rather than subjective surveys and self-reporting. Using an array of 32 electrodes placed on the scalp, the researchers were able to record electrical activity in the brain, providing accurate and objective measurements of attentional capacity.

The study focused on three components of attention: alerting, orienting, and executive control. While there was little difference between the two groups in terms of alertness and orientation, the nature walkers exhibited significant improvement in executive control. This component of attention, which occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, is essential for tasks such as working memory, decision making, problem-solving, and multitasking.

McDonnell and Strayer hope to further refine their findings to determine which types of natural settings yield optimal cognitive benefits and how much exposure is required to experience these benefits. By understanding the factors that contribute to mental and physical well-being, it may be possible to design cities that support and promote these aspects.

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