Have you ever noticed that looking at trees feels like a brain massage?
That’s the only way I know how to articulate the immediate release I feel when I’m out in nature.
It’s a total body release. First, I feel the muscles around my eyes relax. Then my forehead de-wrinkles. And finally, I feel a softening throughout the rest of my body.
Nerd that I am, I’m fascinated by scientific research that explains my own experiences. I guess I’m a sucker for external validation of my internal processes!
So I perked up today when this article about The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature popped up on twitter. Here’s the tweet that caught my attention (thanks Gretchen Rubin via Jonathan Fields):
A 45-minute walk in a park boosts cognitive performance; a walk downtown doesn’t.
Cool! I thought. I want to know more about that. So I read the article, and here’s a brief synopsis (gentle readers will, I’m sure, correct me about anything I’ve over-simplified):
Attention is placed in two different types of ways: (1) It can be “captured” by inherently interesting or important stimuli. This is known as “involuntary attention.” (2) It can be intentionally focused in a specific direction. This is known as “directed attention.”
Spending time in nature invokes a mild kind of Attention #1. The grass ripples in the wind. A hummingbird flutters. The sun glints off of the water. Our attention shifts with ease from place to place.
While the brain is in this mode, the mechanisms that control our “directed attention” (#2) get to lay low for a while. They’re on break. They get to relaaaaaax, maaaan!
When we go back to work after a nature break, we’re better able to focus because our Directed Attention has had a chance to recharge. She’s revved up and ready to go again!
Interestingly, walks in the city don’t allow our Directed Attention to take a break. Watch out for that car! Look both ways when you cross the street! Stay safe! There are too many important things to focus on.
But according to this article, even looking at a picture of nature can give our Directed Attention some time off. A simple picture! I am gonna hafta try this and see if it works.
As the authors of the study concluded, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.”
I’m committing to giving myself the gift of “simple and brief interactions with nature” on a daily basis. I bet even a couple of minutes will do the trick! Will you join me? We’ll all be smarter (and probably happier) because of it.