While spending 12 hours in the blistering heat might not sound like the smartest idea, it turns out that spending more time outdoors improves the way our brains work.
A research team led by Marc Berman of the University of Michigan gave participants a standard memory and attention test then assigned some of them to walk through downtown Ann Arbor, and others to walk through the impressive campus arboretum. The participants were tested again upon their return, and beyond a doubt the group that took the nature walk scored significantly better.
Here’s what he original study, published in 2008, found:
In sum, we have shown that simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control. To consider the availability of nature as merely an amenity fails to recognize the vital importance of nature in effective cognitive functioning.
Researchers repeated a similar study this year to see if exposure to greenspace would influence subjects with major clinical depression.
The study prompts several conclusions. The first, not really tied to cities, is that nature walks might provide a cost-efficient supplement to traditional treatments for major depression. As the researchers point out, the mood priming did work, meaning study participants set out on their journey thinking about a negative personal event. The fact that their positive affect improved despite this sour state shows the cognitive power of park land.
The second conclusion, more germane for our purposes, is that “incorporating nearby nature into urban environments may counteract” some of the cognitive strains placed on the brain by the city, the authors write. Recent research has suggested economic and crime benefits of urban greenery; now advocates can legitimately add “public health” to their list of arguments.
So, in conclusion: The urban and managed landscape doesn’t just look good – it makes you smarter and feel better about yourself.