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posted by hubie on Friday February 02, @12:04PM   Printer-friendly

New research from University of Utah psychology researchers is helping prove what American authors John Muir and Henry David Thoreau tried to teach more than 150 years ago: Time spent in nature is good for the heart and soul.

Amy McDonnell and David Strayer are showing it is good for your brain, too. Their latest research, conducted at the university's Red Butte Garden, uses electroencephalography (EEG), which records electrical activity in the brain with small discs attached to the scalp, to measure participants' attentional capacity.

"A walk in nature enhances certain executive control processes in the brain above and beyond the benefits associated with exercise," concludes the study appearing in Scientific Reports. The paper contributes to the growing body of scientific literature on how natural settings contribute to a person's physical and mental health. The university itself has recently established a new research group, Nature and Human Health Utah, that explores these issues and proposes solutions for bridging the human-nature divide.

Many researchers suspect a primal need for nature is baked into humans' DNA, and diminishing access to nature is putting our health at risk.

"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, a professor of psychology. "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."

Strayer's past research into multitasking and distracted driving associated with cellphone use has drawn national attention. For the past decade, his lab has focused on how nature affects cognition. The new research was part of McDonnell's dissertation as a grad student in Strayer's Applied Cognition Lab. She has since completed her Ph.D. and is continuing the attention research as a postdoctoral fellow with the University of Utah.

The study, conducted in 2022 between April and October, analyzed EEG data recorded on each of 92 participants immediately before and after they undertook a 40-minute walk. Half walked through Red Butte, the arboretum in the foothills just east of the university, and half through the nearby asphalt-laden medical campus.
"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 from much of the existing research into the human-nature nexus is its reliance on EEG data as opposed to surveys and self-reporting, which do yield helpful information but can be highly subjective.

Journal Reference:
Amy S. McDonnell et al, Immersion in nature enhances neural indices of executive attention, Scientific Reports (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-024-52205-1

Original Submission

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 03, @10:06AM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 03, @10:06AM (#1342938)

    A walk in an urban environment can also require those "big three" functions, there are vehicles and people who might kill/harm you.

    So is the "requirement" alone enough to generate a similar effect on the brain?

    If it's certain sights and sounds then will there be a similar effect with a VR helmet?

    If it's certain smells then maybe try doing a similar test in an urban style environment but with the scents + smells.

    All that said I don't doubt there could some psychological thing with "nature", after all scenery, aesthetics etc has an impact.

    What I do find interesting is the "Overview effect": []

    Barring "sci fi" style explanations, our ancestors couldn't have evolved such a thing before right? So is it an emergent?

  • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Sunday February 04, @12:52AM

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Sunday February 04, @12:52AM (#1342988)

    >A walk in an urban environment can also require those "big three" functions, there are vehicles and people who might kill/harm you.

    True, and some of the stuff we crave in our urban environments substitutes for the things we look for in nature, but you've gotta admit: flat concrete isn't as stimulating as rough ground, vehicles are generally better behaved than wolves or even buffalo, and while the occasional person is dangerous, the ratio of safe to dangerous people is much higher in a city than in the middle of nowhere - and the sheer number of vehicles and people is something rare - not unheard of - but rarer in nature.

    >If it's certain sights and sounds then will there be a similar effect with a VR helmet?

    Probably a weak tea sort of better than a sensory deprivation chamber kind of effect.

    >the "Overview effect"

    For people who can "wrap their heads around it" without flipping into "moon landing was a Hollywood hoax" denial mode... yeah, that's a good one that sort of makes me think of "higher forces" at work: once you're advanced enough to see things from that perspective you should acquire the respect to protect that limited resource...

    As for evolving such a thing, the Simba speech already is an overview effect kind of terrestrial analog: "All the light touches will be your kingdom..."

    🌻🌻 []