More than 50% of people live in urban environments and most have relatively infrequent contact with nature, according to research published by the United Nations.
One consequence is that many urban dwellers with decreased exposure to nature report “changes in psychological functioning” including ruminative thoughts – repetitive thoughts about negative aspects of the self – and depressed feelings, found University College London’s Theo Lorenc, Mark Petticrew, and Steven Cummins with Stephen Clayton of University of Central Lancaster, and David Neary of University of Manchester, University of Liverpool’s Margaret Whitehead, Hilary Thomson of University of Glasgow, University of York’s Amanda Jayne Sowden, and Adrian Renton of University of East London.
Contact with nature can affect cognitive performance as well as emotional experience: Children living in urban environments with consistent views of nature outside their windows, performed better on:
- Working memory (backward digit span, backward alphabet span),
- Impulse inhibition (matching familiar figures task),
- Selective attention (Stroop color-word task),
- Concentration (Necker Cube pattern control task), reported by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William C. Sullivan.
Urban environments are thought to require substantial top-down voluntary attentional control to filter relevant from irrelevant stimuli.
At the same time, built landscapes can deplete cognitive resources, worsening performance on tasks requiring focused attention, noted University of Uppsala’s Terry Hartig, Gary W. Evans of University of California, Irvine with Marlis Mang of Planning & Design Solutions.
Walking for 90 minutes in nature reduced rumination, blood flow, and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), reported Stanford’s Gregory N. Bratman, Kevin S. Hahn, Gretchen C. Daily, and James J. Gross with J. Paul Hamilton of Laureate Institute for Brain Research.
This brain area has been linked to self-focused behavioral withdrawal and rumination among both healthy and depressed people.
More than 35 volunteers rated their proneness to ruminate with negative thoughts, then half walked alone for 90-minutes without music through undeveloped open space hills through grassland with scattered shrubs and oak trees along a paved path.
They were told to take ten photographs of “whatever captured their attention” to disguise the study’s hypotheses.
Remaining participants walked alone without music down a busy, paved six-lane road with traffic for the same time period.
Following the walks, volunteers again rated their likelihood to repeatedly think negative thoughts.
They also completed a brain scan and cognitive and emotional assessment instruments including:
–Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) developed by Southern Methodist University’s David Watson, with Lee Anna Clark and Auke Tellegen of University of Minnesota,
–Backward digit span, developed by David Wechsler of Bellevue Hospital,
–Attention Network Task (ANT- executive attention subtest), developed by Mount Sinai’s Jin Fan, Bruce D. McCandliss and John Fossella of Cornell, Yale’s Jonathan I. Flombaum and Michael I. Posner of University of Oregon,
–Rumination-Reflection Questionnaire (RRQ) by Ohio State’s Paul Trapnell and Jennifer Campbell, including items like “I often reflect on episodes of my life that I should no longer concern myself with”),
–Operation Span Task (OSPAN) developed by Georgia Tech’s Nash Unsworth, Richard Heitz and and Randall Engle with Josef Schrock o Marysville College,
–State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), developed by University of South Florida’s Charles D. Spielberger,
Visuospatial working memory (change detection), developed by University of Iowa’s Steven J. Luck and Edward K. Vogel,
Connectedness to Nature Scale (CNS); developed by Oberlin College’s Stephan Mayer and Cynthia McPherson Frantz, including items measuring:,
- Connection: “I think of the natural world as a community to which I belong”),
- Personal identification with flora and fauna: ”I often feel a kinship with animals and plants”),
- Equality between self and nature: “I recognize and appreciate the intelligence of other living organisms”).
People who walked in nature reported significantly reduced rumination after the walk, scored higher on a complex working memory span task, were more attentive and cheerful.
In contrast, urban walkers’ rumination scores were the same both before and after exercise.
However, built environments containing living elements can reduce stress and enhance mood: Fish tanks, for example, are often included in physicians’ and dentists’ waiting areas, intended to increase patients’ calmness.
This intuitive design choice was validated by a controlled study of people’s reactions to viewing different amounts of marine life in the UK’s National Marine Aquarium as it was unstocked, partially stocked with 6 fish species, and restocked with 19 fish species and 3 invertebrate species.
As the number of fish increased, volunteers:
–Spent longer in spontaneous viewing,
-Showed greater reductions in heart rate including after a rest period, and
-Reported increased mood, according to Plymouth University’s Deborah Cracknell and Sabine Pahl with Mathew P. White and Michael H. Depledge of University of Exeter, collaborating with California Academy of Sciences’s Wallace J. Nichols.
Even viewing photographic images and videos of natural scenery has been shown to reduce skin conductance, heart rate, and other physiological indicators of stress , found University of Essex’s Valerie Gladwell, D.K.Brown, J.L.Barton, M.P.Tarvainen, P.Kuoppa, J.Pretty, J.M.Suddaby, and G.R.H.Sandercock.
These findings suggest that taking time in nature can be an essential self-care practice for people living in urban environments.
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