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Nature makes us more focused
02 January 2024

Nature makes us more focused

Nature makes us more focused

Several studies have shown that green and blue environments are associated with a reduction in stress, a positive state of mind and a decrease in anxiety in general. You can put down the bucket of paint... The color of the environment is related to its own context, i.e. green means that it has vegetation and blue, that it has running water.

More recently, evidence has emerged that this exposure to nature even benefits cognitive function. In other words, all the processes involved in gaining knowledge and understanding, perception, memory, reasoning, judgment, imagination and problem solving. According to one study, after just 40 seconds of looking at a green roof, participants made fewer mistakes in a test than if they were looking at a concrete roof.

The director of the Environmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Chicago, Dr. Marc Berman, evaluated some brains with a test consisting of a task in which people have to repeat sequences of numbers in reverse order. He then sent them for a 50-minute walk in an urban or natural setting. When they returned, they repeated the task. The discovery was incredible! "Performance improved by around 20% when the participants had walked in nature, but not for those who had been in an urban environment," he explained.

Green brings creativity

According to Professor Kathryn Williams, an environmental psychologist at the University of Melbourne, "research has shown improved creativity after immersion in natural environments," she explains. One study found that a 4-day walk without access to technology increased participants' creativity by 50%.

But why does this happen? According to EO Wilson, a sociobiologist, human beings function better in natural environments because their brains and bodies evolved in nature and with nature. Here's how it works, explains Dr. David Strayer, from the Applied Cognition Lab at the University of Utah: "As hunter-gatherers, those who were more connected to the natural environment were more likely to survive. But then we built all this infrastructure and we're trying to use the hunter-gatherer brain to live in a highly stressful and demanding modern world."

It's not that being a hunter-gatherer was easy, but the way we've evolved doesn't seem to be suited to the needs of today's world, as the stressful situations we encounter don't require a physical reaction, but still evoke the same physiological reaction (increased cortisol levels, rapid heartbeat and alertness) that can impact immune and cardiovascular function as well as memory, mood and attention.

So what happens when we're out in nature? We activate the parasympathetic nervous system, a kind of branch of the nervous system related to a state of "rest". This leads to feelings of well-being that allow us to think more clearly and positively.

Anti-stress nature

Another theory suggests that oxytocin may be behind the phenomenon, exerting a very strong anti-stress and restorative effect when we are in a natural context, which we see as safe, pleasant and familiar.
But... if nature only affects our brain with this ability to give us well-being, it would only work if we saw nature as a positive experience. However, some studies say that these improvements in cognitive function are not associated with an improved state of mind.

In his experiment, Berman asked the participants to take nature walks at different times of the year, and even in January when it was really cold. Even so, they still experienced improvements in their test performance. In other words, you don't even have to like being in nature to benefit from exposure to it!

There's also another explanation, known as the attention restoration theory, which is the ability to maintain focus on a mental task while ignoring external distractions. It seems that there is something in nature that engages the brain in an undemanding and effortless way, and gives the areas of the brain responsible for this attention a chance to rest and recover. This plays a very important role, especially as this ability to focus is a finite resource.

A clear link

For the scientists involved, it has become clear that this link exists, and they are now thinking about what aspects of nature they can focus on to improve them: places with a good diversity and abundance of birds and trees, which bring less anxiety and improve the state of mind.

And in cities? Well... the opposite happens! There are so many elements that put demands on the brain and overload it. But in theory, if built environments mimicked the patterns of nature, with fewer rigid lines, more curves and a high fractal structure, they could have a similar effect on cognition.

How to get the most out of nature (The Guardian)
1 - At least 30 minutes: this is the time needed for measurable benefits.
2 - Forget technology: watches, phones, earphones
3 - Time it right: according to one study, cognitive reinforcement lasted 30 minutes after leaving the natural context, which can help plan the best time for more demanding work.
4 - Choose the location: not all natural environments are the same. It needs to be pleasant and engaging.

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