Real talk: January/February can be grim - the exciting rush of the holidays are over, you have “resolutions” to live up to (even if you didn’t make one, everyone’s telling you about theirs), you're back to the work grind, and the frigid weather is just the icing on the cake until spring makes a glorious appearance.

If you're a city dweller, I urge you to shake off that winter funk and head on over to your local garden shop! Why? Because science says so...duh! We evolved in a plant filled environment. Just think of the hunter-gatherers (surrounded by nature,blue sky, and green landscape).

While plants aren’t necessary for an environment to be considered “natural”, there are many studies that indicate that being in nature (or surrounding yourself by plants and blue and green colors) is good for your mental health, stress levels, and helps with inflammation.


An Evolutionary Perspective

One theory from the Journal of Happiness, notes that many cities and indoor areas without natural landscape may be putting subtle strains on our brains.

The idea is based on theories from Evolutionary Psychology. Our brains developed in different environments than we live in today. When an environmental mismatch REDUCES the strain of living (like a lock on a door increasing sense of safety), human happiness seems likely to increase. When the environmental mismatch INCREASES strain, even in subtle ways like lack of blue and green color, human happiness is likely to decrease. This mismatch shows a disconnect between how we presently live and what our genes are adapted to. It’s a possible source of mental health issues.

Most of us are aware that a quick walk around the block does wonders for the mind. But what a new study reveals is that if you want to enhance your brain power, the type of scenery is key.

Tested Study

Marc G. Berman and colleagues at the University of Michigan tested the effect of scenery on cognitive function (Berman, Jonides & Kaplan, 2008). In the first of two studies participants were given a 35 minute task involving repeating loads of random numbers back to the experimenter, but in reverse order. After this test, they were sent out for a walk – one group around nature and the other down a bustling city street. Both groups were tracked with GPS devices. They each repeated the memory test when they got back.

The results showed that performance improved by almost 20% after walking surrounded by trees. By comparison, those walking amongst the bustling street did not improve on the test.

In a second study, subjects weren’t allowed to leave the lab but instead some stared at pictures of natural scenes while others looked at urban environments. The results weren’t quite as impressive as the first study (a confounding variable may be the effect of exercise stimulating cognitive function), but once again nature surpassed the city landscape. Just viewing pictures of natural scenes had a restorative effect on cognitive function.

Attention Restoration Theory

So why does being immersed in nature allow our minds to chill out? Kaplan provides a great explanation based on the idea that attention is split into two types:

  • Involuntary attention is grabbed by whatever is most immediate to our survival. We have less control over this and consequently find it very difficult to ignore things like buses coming straight at us.

  • Directed attention is what we use to override our instinctual, involuntary attention. It allows us to resolve conflicts so that, for example, we can work out we are in more immediate danger from a car overtaking that bus. Vitally, directed attention is thought important to our short-term memory.

Imagine crossing a busy street: our involuntary attention is being pulled in multiple directions: flashing crossing signals, police sirens, honking cars, whizzing motorcycles, huge buses on cables, trolly cars (at least in San Francisco), etc. All this buzz means we continually have to decide where our attention should be directed which is tiring for our brains.

In comparison, natural scenes only engage our involuntary attention moderately: it’s enough to stop us getting bored, but not so stimulating that we need to engage our directed attention. Just think of how you feel watching the sunset: Gazing outward into nature gives our directed attention a rest so that we can let our minds wander.

Trees and fields: the ultimate cognitive enhancers?

Nature can be thought of as a natural cognitive enhancer in the sense that it gives our brains a break from stressful stimulus and tires it out without realizing it! The beauty of this study is that it puts a concrete number on the improvement. There may be confounding variables, just like any other study involving humans, but it’s great to know there are natural and free ways of refreshing our minds.

So go out and hack your brain with some house plants if you can’t make the time to get into nature!