Sleep disorders, stress, blood pressure… We can no longer count the benefits associated with nature, whether they are vast wooded areas or green spaces developed in the city. But nature may not yet have revealed all its secrets. A new study by American researchers suggests that walking in nature could improve attention and concentration, a finding that could inspire recruiters and managers.
City dwellers have all experienced it at least once in their lives – and probably much more regularly: city noise, cars, telephones, and other urban nuisances can easily interfere with attention. Something to take into account in business, but also in employees’ living spaces due to the generalization of teleworking. Psychology researchers at the University of Utah sought to find out to what extent nature could annihilate these harmful effects, or more simply be beneficial for brain health.
The brains of city dwellers lacking nature?
“There’s an idea called biophilia which basically says that our evolution over hundreds of thousands of years has led us to have more connection or love with natural living things. However, our modern urban environment has become a dense urban jungle, with cell phones, cars, computers and traffic, the opposite of this type of restorative environment.“, explains David L. Strayer, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, in a press release.
Unlike most studies, which are based on self-declaration and self-assessment, this work carried out between April and October 2022 is based on objective measurements. The researchers set out to analyze data from electroencephalography (EEG), which makes it possible to measure and record the brain’s electrical activity, of 92 participants, before and after a 40-minute walk. Half of the people included in this work walked in an arboretum located a stone’s throw from the university, while the other half made do with asphalt.
Before the walk, the researchers did everything possible to “exhaust the attentional reserves” of the participants. To do this, they asked them to carry out a demanding cognitive task: counting backwards from seven to seven starting from 1,000. “Regardless of your mental arithmetic level, this task becomes very exhausting after 10 minutes. Right after, we give them an attention task“, explains Amy McDonnell, co-author of this research.
Good in his body, good in his head!
Thanks to electrodes placed over the entire surface of the participants’ scalp, the scientists were able to observe a very clear map of their brain, based on three components of attention: alerting, orientation and executive control. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, this work did not make it possible to observe big differences in terms of alertness and orientation among all the participants, but those who walked in nature showed greater abilities in terms of executive control (decision making, problem solving, etc.).
“Participants who had walked in nature showed improvement in their executive attention (…), whereas urban walkers did not, so we know there is something unique about the environment in which one you walk“, adds Amy McDonnell. And her colleague adds: “The kinds of things we do every day tend to place heavy demands on these executive attentional networks. They are important for concentration and especially for thinking, and are therefore an essential part of high-level thinking“.
Future research by these two psychology professors will be aimed at refining these conclusions. This will involve determining the type of natural environment in which these cognitive benefits are most expressed, but also the optimal degree of exposure necessary to achieve them. “If we understand what makes us mentally and physically healthier, we could then potentially design our cities to support them“, conclude the researchers. Those who do not have access to these expanses of greenery can consider turning to nature videos, which could help, according to science, to relax and reduce stress levels.