But in a nature walk, says Berman, “There typically isn't this distracting stimulation, so the person can kind of defocus in some sense, or mind-wander.”
While the researchers tested only a nature versus urban walk, there could be other ways to defocus for a while. Berman notes that “a museum might have similar effects” because there’s interesting stimulus but no distractions “where you need to be vigilant.”
One might think that the volunteers did better because the walk put them in a better mood, but the researchers also tested the volunteer’s moods both before and after the walks and found that didn’t correlate with the test results.
In fact, the researchers also tested the volunteers in all kinds of weather, from pleasant summers to the rough winters of Ann Arbor. Says Berman, “When people walked in cold weather they still got the same (cognitive) improvement as in the warm weather. They just didn't enjoy the walks as much.”
But what if you can’t go outside? The researchers did a second experiment where they had people just quietly look at pictures. Just like for the walks, when the pictures were of nature, scores went up, but volunteers who looked at pictures of cityscapes showed no improvement.
Berman says this has implications for planners, “in terms of how they’re designing living environments,” or by those designing work environments in order to help them “get better productivity from employees.”
This research was published in the December 2008 issue of Psychological Science and was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the University of Michigan.
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