A Walk in the Park to Restore Your Mind

Both my home office and my campus office feature prominently displayed posters of landscapes by Bill Hughes. They are there because viewing the originals at the Leanin’ Tree Museum of Western Art was the most powerful art experience I have ever had, and my father was glad to help me recapture it as much as possible – but they also turn out to be useful resources for restoring my mind as my workday drags on.

I wrote last week of the importance of paying attention, because if we’re not paying attention we can manage not to see what’s right in front of our eyes. But the phrase “pay attention” is more accurate than it might seem, because there is a cost to attending to something; attention is a limited resource, and the harder we attend to something the faster we wear out our attention. The process is known as ego depletion, and it applies to any task that requires cognitive effort, including decisions by judges about whether to grant parole. Fortunately, there are a few surprisingly simple ways to restore your mental resources; you might try a sugary drink – or, you could take a walk in the park.

This potential walk is all about location, location, location. It’s not the physical exercise that will restore your mind, or a sense of relaxation, or even whether you enjoy yourself, although those things can’t hurt. The benefits of this walk will depend on how much your surroundings demand your attention.

A city street is a frantic hive of activity, and you’ll need to pay attention to your surroundings to make sure you don’t bump into other pedestrians, get hit by a car, or get lost. Your attention might be grabbed by the woman walking by nonchalantly carrying the lower half of a mannequin (yes, speaking from personal experience), but you can’t stop and idly consider the event – you’ll have to put your attention back on your surroundings and your path and the obstacles in it.

A park, on the other hand, is not going to place heavy demands on your attention. There will be fewer potential paths to take with fewer people on them. It might help to be aware of the Frisbee game nearby, but it probably isn’t vital to your well-being. And when something –  a bird song, a plant on the path – catches your eye, you can let your attention stay there for a moment without having to direct it back to more pressing matters. You don’t have to direct your attention, giving that depleted ego time to regenerate.

The benefits of a walk in nature were shown by Marc Berman and colleagues at the University of Michigan, who sent dozens of undergraduate students on 2.8 mile walks in downtown Ann Arbor or the nearby Nichols Arboretum. Before they went on walks, the students answered questions about their mood, asked to remember strings of up to 9 digits and then repeat them backwards, and spend 35 minutes of focused effort trying to forget things (like trying not to think about a blue elephant after someone says “don’t think about a blue elephant”). After the walk, they answered questions about a mood and repeated more strings of digits backwards.

Before the walks, both city walkers and park walkers remembered just under 6 digits: After hearing 3 7 8 1 2 5, they could successfully repeat “521873”, but add one more number to the mix and memory started failing. After the walk, city walkers were still remember only 6 digits, but park walkers were up to almost 7. It might seem like a small difference, but it is statistically significant, and there are plenty of times when that one digit might make all the difference – remembering a phone number, for example.

The park walkers’ improvement was there whether the walks were in September, November, January or July – even though as you can imagine, anyone walking outdoors in Michigan in November or January might not have been happy, and the park wouldn’t have been too pretty.

The improvements from walking in nature had nothing to do with walkers’ moods, so it wasn’t a matter of feeling better or more relaxed, but of something more intrinsic to their surroundings.

The second experiment of the paper shows that my landscapes might be just as helpful, and on other types of cognitive tasks. This time, students had to identify which direction an arrow was pointing, when it was surrounded by arrows that might be pointing in the same direction (<<<<) or the opposite direction (<<><<). And instead of taking a walk, students looked at pictures of nature or pictures of cities for about 10 minutes. The mismatched arrows are always harder, but students who viewed nature pictures got better at the task, and students who viewed urban pictures did not.

Consider these pictures (not used in the study, but similar in concept).

There’s a lot more going on in the city picture – more objects to grab attention,  each with smaller pieces, with harsher shapes and a greater variety of colors. My eye at least flits around the city pictures (Regensburg, in Germany) but mostly rests in one place on the landscape. The city’s drain on attention exists not only when you’re trying to navigate through it, but also when you’re just viewing it. It might not be enough to get me out and walking the hills between classes, but it does add another layer of appreciation when I contemplate my favorite landscapes.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2010). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x


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