Exposure to Nature May Improve Cognition and Memory, Research Suggests
Spending time in nature has been found to help support one’s mood, concentration, and memory, according to research findings. Pharmacists shouldn’t hesitate to recommend their clients “take a hike!”
Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits that nature has, including a 2015 study that randomly assigned 60 participants to take a 50-min walk in either a natural or an urban setting. Before and after their walk, participants completed a series of mood and cognitive assessments.
Participants on the nature walk scored better compared to those who took the urban walk, the study found.
Researchers said one explanation for the findings is that natural environments have been shown to lower stress. Another explanation may be the ability of nature to restore one’s direct attention. Urban environments heavily tax the direct attention mechanisms needed to filter relevant stimuli from irrelevant stimuli, the researchers noted.
“Demands from the urban environment deplete this cognitive resource, and can thereby worsen performance on tasks that rely on this focused, directed attention,” they write.
Natural environments, by contrast, may result in the replenishment of direct attention, because they are less heavily taxed in these environments. “This, in turn, may lead to improved performance on tests that measure memory and attention,” the study suggests.
Other research echoes these findings. A 2009 study found that simple and brief interactions with nature can produce increases in cognitive control. For example, performance on backwards digit-span assessments — which tests one’s ability to recall a sequence of numbers — significantly improved when participants walked in nature, but not when they walked downtown, the researchers found.
Even the sounds of nature may have a brain benefit. In a 2018 study, participants were exposed to either urban sounds (such as traffic and a busy café), or nature sounds (such as crickets and crashing waves). Those who listened to the nature sounds performed better on cognitive assessments, the study found.
You don’t even have to step outside to gain the benefits of nature. What’s outside of your window can make a difference on brain health.
A 1998 study found workers who had windows that overlooked natural environments, such as trees and foliage, had lower levels of stress and higher levels of well-being compared with those who overlooked a concrete environment.
How Much Nature is Needed?
Australian researchers found that even 40 seconds of looking at a green environment may improve attention and performance on a cognitive task. Meanwhile, researchers in the United Kingdom found people who had spent at least two recreational hours in nature during the previous week reported significantly greater health and well-being.