How Nature Can Help Your Mind
by OMID MIRFENDERESKI
It is no secret that hectic urban environments and fast-paced technological lifestyles can lead to mental fatigue. Media, traffic, and social and emotional stressors can all bombard us with engaging stimuli that unintentionally wear out our minds. Although at times we may certainly continue to thrive with technology and the dazzling city surroundings, at other times we may get so exhausted that we must simply escape the hustle and bustle and retreat into the natural world. Research suggests that exposure to nature may have numerous advantages for mental health, so if we are indeed feeling a little bit out of tune, we may truly benefit from the great call of the wild. Here are just some of the key mental health troubles that Mother Nature may have the solution to.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Certain features of technology-oriented lifestyles – such as television – are said to weaken attention capacity. A 2007 study published in Pediatrics obtained the number of weekday hours that children watched television from 5 to 15 years of age, then assessed attention problems such as short attention span and poor concentration through checklists and interviews. The study discovered that a greater number of television-watching hours during childhood was correlated with a greater frequency of attention problems during adolescence, possibly due to the attention-grabbing techniques used in television. The study’s findings suggest that the overwhelming stimulation of digital life may take a toll on our ability to focus. 
How Can Nature Help?
Nature has been shown to improve directed-attention abilities, which involve focusing on certain stimuli while suppressing irrelevant or competing stimuli.  According to the Attention Restoration Theory, nature strengthens these abilities since it involves effortless rather than effortful attention.  In other words, a walk in a park or a look at a landscape photograph could engage our focus without draining the perceptual processing capacity that would be needed for difficult attentional tasks.
Improving Concentration and Sustained Attention
Findings suggest that exposure to nature may improve performance on concentration tasks. A 2008 study published in Psychological Science found that walking in nature for 50 to 55 minutes improved performance on a task which involved recalling sequences of numbers in reverse order. The study also found that walking in nature improved mood, but interestingly, it did not find a correlation between mood change and task performance. In a second experiment involving relatively fewer participants, the study found that viewing pictures of nature improved performance on a task that involved determining the direction of a specific arrow. [3, 4]
Other research supports the notion that nature photographs may enhance sustained attention. A set of experiments from a 2005 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology discovered that performance on a sustained attention test improved after viewing photographs of restorative natural environments, regardless of the time conditions involved. 
Other findings demonstrate that habitual views of nature, just like walks in nature and glances at nature photographs, can improve mental focus. A 1995 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that university dormitory residents with more natural views from their windows performed better on attentional tasks, such as substituting numbers for symbols, than their counterparts with more artificial views from their windows. 
What is the Problem?
Research suggests that urban lifestyles are associated with greater stress. A 1993 article published in the American Journal of Human Biology indicated that levels of norepinephrine and epinephrine, two hormones released during stress reactions, were lower in rural villagers than in urban sedentary workers and students in Western Samoa. The article also indicated that levels of norepinephrine (but not epinephrine) were lower in villagers of rural Western Samoa than in residents of modernized American Samoa or urbanized Hawaii. Both sets of findings reveal that urban and modern lifestyles correlate with higher stress levels. 
How Can Nature Help?
Nature has been shown to encourage and speed up stress recovery. Exposure to real-life or videotaped natural environments may decrease physical arousal (high heart rate and high blood pressure) brought about by the largely subconscious autonomic nervous system in times of stress. This outcome may facilitate both immediate stress relief and future stress immunity.
Reducing Stressful Arousal and Nervous Activity
Findings indicate that nature may relieve responses to daily stressors. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that after either driving or completing attention-demanding tasks, sitting in a room with views of trees promoted a quicker decline in participant blood pressure than sitting in a viewless room. The study also found that subsequently walking in a nature reserve promoted greater stress reduction in participants than subsequently walking in an urban environment. 
Other research suggests that videotapes of natural environments may also counteract stress responses. In a 1991 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, subjects first viewed a stressful movie and then watched a videotape of either a natural or an urban setting. It was discovered that recovery from stress was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to videotapes of natural environments, based on perceived changes in heart activity and muscle tension. 
Increasing Immunity to Future Stress
Immunity to subsequent stressors may also improve with exposure to nature. In a 1998 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, college-age participants watched a videotape of either an artifact-dominated or a nature-dominated simulated drive, immediately before and after mildly stressful events. It was discovered that participants who viewed nature-dominated drives experienced quicker stress recovery and also greater immunity to subsequent stress, based on perceived autonomic responses to later stressors. 
Frustration and Aggression
What is the Problem?
Study results suggest that contemporary urban environments increase frustration and aggression, possibly due to the particularly high presence of traffic. A 1999 study published in Aggressive Behavior indicated that driver aggression was greater in high-congestion conditions than in low-congestion conditions, as revealed through participant responses to the State Driving Behavior Checklist, which asks about behaviors used to cope with stress. Urban areas, which are more likely to have high-congestion conditions, are also more likely to breed aggression. 
How Can Nature Help?
It has been suggested that nature decreases irritation, frustration, and aggression. Exposure to vegetation may boost frustration tolerance and discourage violent tendencies, possibly because it decreases mental fatigue and improves attention. 
Increasing Frustration Tolerance
It has been shown that nature may reduce feelings of irritation and frustration. In a 2003 study published in Environment and Behavior, participants viewed videotapes of specific highway drives, each of which differed in its amount of roadside vegetation and man-made material. It was discovered that participants who were exposed to videotapes with more vegetation had greater frustration tolerance, as they spent more time on a difficult word activity. 
It is possible that exposure to nature also decreases the likelihood of aggressive actions and behavior. According to a 2001 study published in Environment and Behavior, urban public housing residents living in relatively barren buildings reported more aggression and violence than urban public housing residents living in buildings with nearby trees and grass. The study indicated that the mechanism that lowered aggression in the latter group of residents was attentional restoration, an advantageous process discussed earlier in this article. 
Research suggests that nature is restorative and therapeutic for the mind. While urban environments and lifestyles may impair concentration, increase stress, and promote aggression, natural environments may strengthen directed-attention capacity, improve stress recovery, increase frustration tolerance, and reduce aggressive behavior. So the next time you are feeling overwhelmed by the hectic pace of city life, simply take a walk in the park or watch a video on nature to restore your focus and regain your mental vigor.
Summer 2014 | Vol. 14 | Issue 5
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- “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature.” Psych Sci. (2008).
- “Testing the Efficiency and Independence of Attentional Networks.” sacklerinstitute.org. (2008).
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- “Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment via Mental Fatigue.” Environ Behav. (2001).
- “The Restorative Effects of Roadside Vegetation: Implications for Automobile Driver Anger and Frustration.” Environ Behav. (2003).