How Urban Parks Enhance Your Brain

How Urban Parks Enhance Your Brain

Earlier this summer, the David Suzuki Foundation (a Canadian-based organization dedicated to preserving the environment) ran the 30x30 Challenge. The challenge was simple: it called on urban-dwellers to spend 30 minutes a day in nature.

Playing in a park. Swimming in a lake. Climbing a tree. Anything really.

The organization claimed that spending time in nature makes you happier, healthier and smarter.

I could grasp the healthier and happier right away – just yesterday I went for a long run in a park just to escape a bout of stress. But smarter?

As it turns out, there is something to the claim.

Researchers from the University of Michigan gave participants a standard memory and attention test then assigned some of them to walk through downtown Ann Arbor, and others to walk through the campus arboretum. Participants were tested again upon their return. The group that took the walk in nature scored significantly higher.

Now some (including the folks at Cracked.com) have interpreted the findings to mean that cities make you dumb, but it seems that isn’t really what’s going on here. In fact, those who went for the city walk scored higher too, just not nearly as high as the nature-walking group.

Instead, it highlights what lead researcher Marc Berman calls “attention restoration theory.” The theory posits that when we’re in a setting with a great deal of stimulation we expend more attention on tasks like avoiding traffic, navigating a subway, or just trying not to bump into other people. When we’re in nature, we use an indirect form of attention that gives our brain a chance to refresh. It’s a bit like sleep really.

The research, gives some reason to believe that incorporating nearby nature into urban environments may counteract some of the cognitive strains placed on the brain by day-to-day life in a city.

So if you’ve hibernating in an air conditioned office all summer, it might be time to get outside and find a patch of green or lake to dip your toes in. Not only will it put you in a great mood, it might just make you more high functioning when you get back to your desk.

July 23, 2012