It seems that the natural environment is good for your attention and memory, according to research published in Psychological Science. Carried out by professor of psychology and neuroscientist John Joindes, and graduate student Marc Berman, at the University of Michigan, they looked at the impact of urban and natural environments on the way our brains work.
A group of volunteers were tested for memory and attention. Then half were sent for a walk around town while the other group were sent for a walk around a nearby arboretum.
Then they tested their memory and attention again, and these tests showed a 20% improvement in those who had gone on the rural, rather than the urban, walk.
It has something to do with what's called Attention Restoration Theory. We all utilise 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) - and involuntary attention, which captures your attention simply because it interests you.
“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,” says Marc Berman.
But why doesn’t an equally interesting urban walk work?
"When you’re walking in an urban environment you need to be careful that you don’t get run over by a car,” says Professor Joindes. “You have to be careful that you don’t bump into somebody walking down the street."
In other words, when you walk through an urban environment, your brain is still in directed attention mode. You need to be vigilant. You can't allow your mind to wander, you need it to ensure your safety.
Freed from this by walking in a natural environment enables involuntary attention to kick in, which allows your mind to rest, says Berman. After this the brain works better because it's refreshed, so we are more able to concentrate, focus and retain information.
But what if you can’t go outside? The researchers did a second experiment where participants quietly looked at pictures - some looked at pictures of the natural environment, some looked at pictures of urban environments. As with the walks, when the pictures were of nature, scores went up, but volunteers who looked at pictures of urban scenes showed no improvement.
What can you do to help yourself?
· Bring nature inside – plants, flowers, pictures of rural scenes – surround yourself with views of nature
· Take a walk in the park – literally. If you live in a city, get off the pavement and walk amongst trees in the park
· In the summer, aim to spend more time outdoors – working, if possible, but socialising, eating and walking
· Outdoor exercise – forget the gym, walk in the outdoors, choosing rural or near-rural areas, take up gardening, or even nature photography