Nature Improves Brain Function, Even When It’s Virtual

Nature Improves Brain Function, Even When It's Virtual

If you’ve ever taken a walk around the neighborhood midway through the workday and then noticed you were more efficient once you sat back down to the computer screen, the fresh air may be at least part of the reason why. New research shows that mother nature makes all the difference in the world when it comes to improving brain function and work performance.

A recent study, published in the journal Environmental Psychology, showed that interrupting tedious tasks with 40-second microbreaks, in which participants looked at a computerized image of a green roof, improved brain function. The task used in the study, which was called the Sustained Attention Response Task (SART), asked participants to look at a series of numbers rapidly popping up on the screen. As part of the task, participants pressed the corresponding number on their keyboards, except for the number 3.

According to The Washington Post:

In the current study, students had to complete the SART task not once, but twice. However, they received a 40-second “microbreak” in between the two trials. During that break, their computer screens flashed either to a digital image of a city building roof covered in concrete, or one covered with grass and flowers. Then, they completed the remainder of the SART trial.

Students that looked at the green roof reported feeling more restored and had better brain function. Specifically, those that looked at the green roof had less fluctuation in response time and made fewer mistakes.

“Viewing different types of nature (parks and forests) can also boost attention, research shows,” lead study author Kate Lee of the University of Melbourne said by e-mail, reported by The Washington Post. “Based on this we would hypothesize that other types of urban greening that show similar vegetation characteristics to those studied previously may also boost attention.”

Another study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that nature walks are good for your brain. Study participants who walked through the lush green portion of Stanford’s campus were more attentive and happier than those that took a stroll near heavy traffic.

According to The New York Times:

[T]he scientists randomly assigned half of the volunteers to walk for 90 minutes through a leafy, quiet, parklike portion of the Stanford campus or next to a loud, hectic, multi-lane highway in Palo Alto. The volunteers were not allowed to have companions or listen to music. They were allowed to walk at their own pace.

Immediately after the nature walks, participants filled out questionnaires and took brain scans. Volunteers who walked in green spaces were less likely to dwell on the negative aspects of their lives than those who walked through traffic. Researchers were specifically studying brooding, or the mind’s unfortunate ability to dwell and chew on negative life events. Brooding, according to the researchers, commonly leads to depression.

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Image of women walking through a field from Shuttershock