When it comes to ways of improving cognitive ability, much of our discussion centers on complex interventions. But additional avenues for broad-based cognitive improvement could be as simple as a walk in the park. While spending more time outside may sound like practical folk wisdom, research shows that natural environments provide real and measurable psychological benefits. Let’s look at some of the findings.
Two kinds of cognitive attention
It has long been accepted among psychologists that attention and concentration are a finite resource that is depleted throughout the day as we perform cognitively demanding tasks. But research on this topic makes a crucial distinction between two different ways that our attention can be engaged.
Much like the cognitive tasks we are faced with at school or at work, urban environments deplete our resources by demanding “directed attention”, where one must focus on processing specific stimuli while filtering out others and suppressing physiological or emotional distractions. There is traffic that must be avoided, signs that must be read, and street grids or transit systems that must be navigated among constantly moving crowds, all of which leads to mental fatigue
Natural environments, on the other hand, interact with our cognition in the radically different manner of fascination or “effortless attention”. Stimuli like a beautiful sunset or a green meadow capture our attention involuntarily and non-threateningly, without requiring conscious focus or demanding a response. Like stretching muscles between workouts, such natural environments engage our cognitive function in a way that restores rather than drains their capacity.
Research proposed in the 1980s by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan has consistently validated the benefits of exposure to nature. In multiple studies, exposure to natural environments significantly improved participants’ performance on attention, memory, and cognition tests when compared to either urban or indoor environments. Amazingly, these benefits appear to extend to more artificial substitutes such as indoor plants or even just looking at nature photographs.
Mental and physiological health
Natural environments have also correlated with reduced stress and better mental health outcomes. According to Stanford researcher Gregory Bratman, “nature scenes activate our parasympathetic nervous system in ways that reduce stress and autonomic arousal, due to our connection to the natural world.” For example, office workers with windows facing natural scenery have reported higher job satisfaction and less workplace frustration. When a recent study added brain scans into the mix, nature walks were shown to reduce activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with depressive rumination.
Exposure to nature appears to have physiological benefits as well. Nursing home residents suffering from dementia showed improved mobility after spending time in a garden, and hospital patients with green window views recovered faster from surgery.
Social and behavioral intelligence
Supporting the age-old refrain of being told to go play outside, studies suggest that nature has even greater significance for children. The variety of objects and patterns found in natural landscapes encourages imaginative play, which is linked to social as well as cognitive development. A study focusing on inner-city children found that, at least for girls, greener home surroundings correlated with greater impulse control and self-discipline. Likewise, playing in natural spaces was associated with a reduction of symptom severity in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. In a broader sense, the open and unstructured nature of outdoor natural spaces encourages social cohesion through group activity and cooperative problem-solving. And this benefit of green spaces also extends to adults, especially those belonging to marginalized urban populations.
Something as simple as exposure to nature can be an additional avenue for improving learning outcomes alongside more targeted cognitive interventions. However, access to natural spaces is already scarce in the areas where many educationally disadvantaged children are concentrated, and the issue is becoming more pressing as the rate of urbanization increases worldwide. Given what we know about the interlocking relationship between cognitive, behavioral, and emotional development in early childhood, it behooves educators to lend more consideration to environmental factors, so that we can provide children with the best possible space in which to grow.