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Thoreau Was Right
restorative nature attention artificial world

Nature Hones the Mind

Want relief from worries and stress about money, jobs, and the hectic pace of modern life? Some of us use “environmental self-regulation strategies” -- a visit to a favorite place to achieve restorative benefits. This 2011 article is from Miller-McCune, Jan 11.

by John McKinney

A long line of the world’s thinkers — from Immanuel Kant to William James to Deepak Chopra — have recommended we take walks in nature to relieve stress and refocus our thoughts. And nature writers — from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir to Edward Abbey — have extolled the restorative benefits of nature. “Everybody,” Muir said, “needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

New studies in “Attention Restoration Theory” or ART, are quantifying the restorative powers of nature and suggesting how the restorative process works.

Psychologist Kalevi Korpela with Finland’s University of Tampere questioned some 1,273 city dwellers of Helsinki about their “favorite” places. Residents self-rated their restorative benefits as significantly stronger than ventures to other places in the city, including developed parklands. The more worries (particularly about work and money) an individual had, the higher the typical level of restoration experience.

Unfortunately, those with many worries had a low rate of nature trips and consequently received a lower level of restorative benefits.

As social scientists explain it, nature engages your attention in relaxed fashion -- leaves rustling, patterns of clouds, sunsets, a bird, the shape of an old tree. Nature captures our attention in subtle, bottom-up ways and allows our top-down attention abilities a chance to regenerate. Attention, therefore, is “restored” by exposure to natural environments.

But the artificial world, like a downtown city, demands active attention to avoid getting hit by cars, negotiate lights and intersections and navigate around others on the sidewalk. At the same time, city walkers are bombarded by advertisements, traffic, and noise. The high-demand attention required when negotiating crowded city streets offers no rest for the weary mind.

Nature’s value in the recovery from illness has been quantified repeatedly. Studies have shown that post-surgery patients resting in rooms overlooking trees recovered better and faster than those in rooms with a view only of a brick wall. Another study demonstrated that women with breast cancer who walked in a park, watched birds, or tended gardens recovered more quickly and were in better spirits than those with little or no contact with the natural world.

University of Michigan researchers Marc Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan gave students long tests of sequences of numbers to repeat in reverse then sent on walks -- half the study participants on a nature walk and half on a city walk. Upon re-testing, the nature walkers’ scores improved significantly while the city walkers’ did not. The experiment was repeated so that each student walked in nature and in the city, and everyone’s score was better after the nature walk.

Students at the University of Chicago told Researcher Gary Felsten that lounges with both artificial and real views of nature were more restorative than views of the city. Researchers from the University of Washington’s Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems Lab got mixed results from two studies: One study showed plasma nature windows providing low-level restorative benefits, another study showed them no more restorative than a blank wall.

One result of all of this research is that recognition of nature’s mental and physical health value is now part of public health discussions. And ART research has helped legitimatize eco-psychology, long stereotyped as New Age philosophy and now seen as grounded in science and statistics.

Korpela believes the restorative value of nature can be taught to today’s stressed-out city dwellers. Under his direction, what is likely “the world’s first forest trail with psychological signposts enhancing the restorative experience” was constructed recently near Ikaalinen Spa, one of Finland’s largest. Hikers meander through diverse scenery and get trailside signpost instructions aimed at increasing the restorative experience: inducing reflection, relaxation and improving their moods.

If further research shows that people deprived of nature will display behaviors characteristic of fatigued attention and irritability, how should office buildings be designed? Schools? Neighborhoods?

Researchers will continue to quantify the amount and kind of nature we need to restore our spirits and regain our mental acuity. In the meantime, it appears Thoreau was right: “An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

JJS: We can “eat” our nature (extract resources) and keep it, too (take walks), if we adopt geonomics. Then, having to pay land dues, we’d take less Earth and use what we take more wisely; use some sites intensely means we need not use other sites at all. That leaves plenty of Earth for nature and restoring our psyche.


Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.

Also see:

Must Parents Do More Than Just Say No?

Internet threatens rare species, conservationists warn

Two Steps Backward -- Any Forward?

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