A natural boost for your brain

In our modern lives, we are constantly bombarded with information and demands on our attention. Between cell phones, email, the internet and social networking, there is hardly a moment left for self-reflection and uninterrupted relaxation.

While all of these technologies bring many new and exciting possibilities, they also bring some unintended consequences. They demand focused attention, the same kind of focus that is required to solve a difficult math problem, and it’s possible that the additional attentional resources devoted to these new technologies may place us in more mentally fatigued states.

In a recent study, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that participants who were heavy multi-media multitaskers (i.e., people who texted while watching television) actually had worse attention and were more susceptible to irrelevant information in the environment compared to people who were light multi-media multitaskers.

These results suggest something ironic — rather than multitasking improving or training our attention, it may actually worsen it. This is not to say that attention cannot be trained (it can, for example with fighter pilots), but that engaging in an email, Facebook, or cell phone training program may actually hurt — more than help — our overall attentional focus.

A walk in nature can improve short-term memory
One of the most common relaxation activities is watching television. Unfortunately, researchers have found correlations between the number of hours we spend in front of the TV and increased self-reported irritability, fatigue and reduced life-satisfaction.

An activity that has been proven to be rejuvenating is interacting with nature! My collaborators and I have done some research examining how a simple walk in the park can improve memory and concentration abilities.

In our study, we assessed participants on a few attention and memory measures and then had participants walk in a nearby garden or stroll down busy urban streets. After the walks, participants returned to the lab and were assessed again with our memory and attention measures. The next week participants returned to the lab and repeated the entire procedure, but walked in the location not visited the week prior.

Our results showed that a 50-minute walk in nature improved short-term memory performance by 20 per cent, but no significant gains were found after the urban walk. In fact we found a similar pattern of results when participants simply viewed pictures of nature vs. urban scenes.

Why does interacting with nature help us focus?
According to Attention Restoration Theory (ART), as theorized by Professor Stephen Kaplan, environments that are rich with inherently fascinating stimuli (e.g., sunsets) invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish. That is, the requirement for focused-attention in such environments is minimized, and attention is typically captured automatically by features of the environment itself.

The logic is that after an interaction with natural environments, one is able to perform better on tasks that depend on focused-attention abilities. Interestingly, while we find that mood improves after interactions with nature, the mood and memory effects do not correlate. In fact, when people went on walks in January, when the temperature was quite cold, participants did not enjoy the walks as much as in the spring/summer, but they showed the same memory improvements!

So get out there, but don’t forget your hat.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Nikada

At Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, Marc Berman’s research explores the brain mechanisms involved in controlling thoughts, feeling and behaviors, and how to improve those abilities. Prior to joining Baycrest in 2011, Dr. Berman received his Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience and Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan.

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