If Henry David Thoreau were alive today, he would probably tell you to get off your cell phone or computer and take a hike in a park or, better yet, take a longer trek into nature. Recent advances in environmental neuroscience are supporting Thoreau’s admonishing. Over the past few decades, researchers have accumulated evidence showing that spending time in nature benefits mental health, physical health, stress physiology, and cognitive functioning.
This may seem intuitive. As our world becomes more and more urbanized, people spend an increasing amount of time indoors. For many of us, getting outside and into nature is the “mental reboot” we need to recalibrate our senses and reconnect with our evolutionary roots. We often return from an outing feeling more focused and less stressed. But why?
Research suggests that being in nature changes the way we attend to the world around us. In our everyday urban environments, we are constantly bombarded with stimuli competing for our limited attention–email notifications, text messages, television and persistent chatter. Over time, this constant stimulation depletes our neural reserves. When we are in nature and off our technology, we give the brain a chance to rest and recuperate from these relentless attentional demands.
Researchers at the University of Utah are studying how this cognitive restoration may be reflected in our brain activity. Dr. David Strayer and his colleagues in the Applied Cognition Laboratory take research participants deep into the wilderness of Southern Utah and record brain activity using electroencephalography, or EEG. EEG is non-invasive, temporally sensitive, and can provide a more objective measure of an individual’s experience without relying on self-reports, which are known to be subject to participant bias.
Strayer’s lab explores how attentional processes in the brain change in nature compared to urban environments. Because urban environments place higher demand on our attentional networks than natural environments, Strayer hypothesizes that we should see a change in how neural correlates of attention function in nature. To date, Strayer and his team have observed improvements in brain activity related to working memory, visual engagement, and error-processing after immersion in nature for four days.
Environmental neuroscientists are working to understand what it is, specifically, about nature that has such a positive impact on the brain. Is it the exercise that is often associated with being outside? Is it that we stow away our cell phones and attend to a more quiet world around us? Is it the socializing we do around a campfire? Or is it the sum of these elements that creates a more restorative environment and gives the brain a chance to rest and recuperate? We lean on wisdom from scientists and philosophers, alike, to better understand Thoreau’s insights.
For more information, check out Strayer’s TEDx Talk on YouTube.
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