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Nature walking proven to significantly boost brain health and functioning

A new study released today by the University of Utah provides further evidence of the profound effects that nature walks have on the human brain.

The research by psychologists Amy McDonnell and David Strayer was executed within the serene Red Butte Garden of the university, leverages electroencephalography (EEG) technology.

This method, involving small discs attached to the scalp, precisely records the brain’s electrical activity. The focus? To assess how nature influences our attentional capacities.

Nature walks and cognitive enhancement

McDonnell and Strayer’s research offers compelling evidence that a walk in nature enhances certain executive control processes in the brain above and beyond the benefits associated with exercise.

This study adds a significant layer to the growing body of research emphasizing the role of natural environments in enhancing both physical and mental health.

It’s a topic gaining momentum, underscored by the University of Utah’s establishment of the Nature and Human Health Utah research group, dedicated to exploring the human-nature connection and addressing the widening gap between them.

Human-nature connection: A theoretical perspective

The theory of biophilia lies at the heart of their research. Strayer, a psychology professor, elaborates.

“There’s an idea called biophilia that basically says that our evolution over hundreds of thousands of years has got us to have more of a connection or a love of natural living things,” said Strayer.

“And our modern urban environment has become this dense urban jungle with cell phones and cars and computers and traffic, just the opposite of that kind of restorative environment.”

This concept has far-reaching implications, particularly as our modern lifestyle increasingly diverges from nature, potentially jeopardizing our health.

Strayer, known for his impactful research on multitasking and the distractions of cellphone use while driving, has, over the past decade, pivoted his focus to understanding nature’s influence on cognition.

This latest study forms part of McDonnell’s doctoral dissertation in Strayer’s Applied Cognition Lab. McDonnell, now a postdoctoral fellow, continues her pursuit of this intriguing area of research.

Studying how the brain responds to nature walks

Conducted between April and October 2022, the study involved 92 participants. Each participant, before and after undertaking a 40-minute walk, had their EEG data meticulously recorded.

Intriguingly, the study featured two distinct walking environments: the leafy Red Butte, an arboretum nestled in the university’s foothills, and a contrasting asphalt-dominated medical campus nearby.

The study’s methodology was particularly striking.

“We start out by having participants do a really draining cognitive task in which they count backwards from 1,000 by sevens, which is really hard,” McDonnel said.

“No matter how good you are at mental math, it gets pretty draining after 10 minutes. And then right after that, we give them an attention task.”

The study methodically depleted participants’ attentional reserves through the “Attention Network Task,” followed by a walk in different environments — all without the distraction of electronic devices or conversation.

Participants were randomly assigned to walk either through the lush arboretum along Red Butte Creek or the urban landscape of the adjacent University of Utah medical campus.

Key findings on nature’s cognitive benefits

“The participants that had walked in nature showed an improvement in their executive attention on that task, whereas the urban walkers did not, so then we know it’s something unique about the environment that you’re walking in,” McDonnell said.

“We know exercise benefits executive attention as well, so we want to make sure both groups have comparable amounts of exercise.”

What sets this study apart is its use of electroencephalography (EEG) data instead of relying solely on subjective surveys and self-reporting.

“This is probably one of the most rigorous studies in terms of controlling for and making sure that it’s really the exposure in Red Butte” resulting in the observed cognitive effects, Strayer said.

Participants were fitted with specialized caps holding 32 electrodes, using a gel to ensure contact with the scalp.

Strayer emphasizes the precision of this EEG method, saying, “It has electrodes that are placed all over the surface of the scalp. It records really very, very small voltages, but it’s an active electrode system that provides beautiful brain maps.”

These maps revealed crucial components of attention — alerting, orienting, and executive control — with the latter being particularly enhanced in participants who walked in natural settings.

Insights on executive control

Executive control, vital for functions like working memory, decision-making, and problem-solving, occurs in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

“The kinds of things that we do on an everyday basis tend to heavily use those executive attentional networks,” Strayer said. “It’s important in concentration and especially, so it’s an essential component of higher order thinking.”

The study found that while there was little difference in alertness and orientation between the two groups, those who walked in nature demonstrated improved executive control.

The research team aims to further refine their findings to identify which natural settings offer optimal cognitive benefits and the necessary exposure duration.

Strayer envisions practical applications, positing, “If you understand something about what’s making us mentally and physically healthier, you could then potentially engineer our cities so that they supported that.”

How cellphones impact nature walking

The team is now investigating how cellphone use affects cognitive responses in natural environments.

Strayer, who also studies the impact of distraction, especially from cellphones while driving, sees a connection between the two areas of research.

“It’s where the prefrontal cortex is overloaded, overstimulated, and you make all kinds of dangerous mistakes when you’re multitasking behind the wheel,” he said.

“But the antidote to that is being out in a natural environment, leave the phone in your pocket and then go out and walk the trails. The parts of the brain that have been overused during the daily commute are restored. You see and think more clearly,” Strayer concluded.

Implications and future research

In summary, the University of Utah’s important study offers compelling evidence of nature’s profound impact on the human brain.

Utilizing electroencephalography (EEG) to meticulously analyze the brain’s response to natural environments, this research underscores the significant cognitive benefits of spending time in nature.

It not only reaffirms the age-old wisdom of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau that “Time spent in nature is good for the heart and soul,” but also offers advice for future urban planning and lifestyle adjustments that prioritize our intrinsic connection to nature.

This study serves as a crucial reminder of the restorative power of the natural world, emphasizing the need to integrate these elements into our increasingly urbanized lives for enhanced mental and physical well-being.

The full study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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