Your brain on greenery
A conversation with environmental psychologist Raymond De Young
Published: November 16, 2011
And it doesn't have to be pristine, gorgeous, picture-postcard-perfect nature. Research suggests that you need very little exposure to nature, just a few trees will do, a glimpse of the water, a small park or maybe time spent viewing someone's front yard garden. If you let yourself soak up this everyday nature even for just a short time, restoration can occur.
But it's important to realize that you've got to let the environment capture your attention. If you go walking with a friend along the river but your conversation is the main focus, then nature, while all around, isn't able to help you.
So if you walk with a friend in a place filled with everyday nature, then you should both go with the intention of trying to help each other focus on the environment. Was it Ram Dass who said, "Be here, now"? That concept of being in the moment, letting the environment wash over you is what we mean when we talk about nature as a restorative tonic.
MT: That reminds me of two phrases I've come across. One is an "an environmental engagement plan" and also the idea of "walking mindfully."
De Young: The engagement plan idea is about not leaving things up to chance. It's like giving yourself some homework that focuses on the environment. Imagine you had a camera with only three pictures left on the roll of film. Now go take a walk of about 20 minutes focusing on the environment and deciding what you would take pictures of to describe the beauty of what you're seeing. Since you have only three photos left, you have to constantly focus and engage with the environment to select just the right scenes to photograph. Now there's some use of directed attention in this task because you're making judgments, you're discriminating. But most of the focus is on nature and that use of directed attention is an investment paying off in mental restoration. Other engagement plans involve asking people to imagine what they would change in the environment to make it more beautiful, or imagine what would happen if the environment had far fewer cars or if it had more people gardening in the front yards. Or look for things that would bring a smile to a child's face. You're trying to be playful with the environment. The purpose is to engage yourself toward the environment rather than toward your own thoughts or the rest of your day or any emotions you are feeling.
Now mindfulness is interesting. There's a lot of research and controversy over whether or not you're supposed to be mindful or mindless. Are you supposed to focus on yourself or on the environment?
If you go to a Buddhist temple and take a course on walking meditation, it would seem like what we're talking about in the engagement plans. You're outside, you're walking, and you're in a meditative state. But, a lot of the instructions are to turn inward and to feel the ground under you and to feel the wind against you and to feel your muscles working. So it's not focusing on nearby nature, it's focusing more on your own sensations and the muscular effects of being outdoors. In this sort of situation you're using your mind to do a body audit and you end up using directed attention.
But when walking meditation tells you to turn outward and look at the nature around you, then it's promoting a mentally restorative experience. And here we again are using a small amount of directed attention as an investment, engaging our involuntary attention and allowing for mental restoration.
MT: Can you give me some examples of how you can measure these effects?
De Young: Well that's the key thing, measurements, as researchers that's what we spend a lot of our time on. There are some visual tests that we use, and we've also developed paper-and-pencil tests that measure our ability to focus attention. One of the tests is called digit-span backwards. Someone gives you a series of letters and your task is to recall them back to the person in reverse order. As we increase the length of the digits string, it gets harder and harder to do correctly. And it turns out that you can recall longer digit strings when your attention is restored than when you have directed attention fatigue.
There's another measurement that uses a Necker Cube. It's a wire-frame cube, and if you look at it, it tends to flip back and forth, one side looks like it's in the front, then a moment later that side looks like it's in the back. If you use your directed attention you can slow down the rate of flipping, and some people can hold it frozen in one state for awhile. The amount of directed attention you have is related to how long you can hold the wire frame image from flipping.
Another measurement uses a Stroop image. This is a list of color words, where each word is printed in a color of ink different than what the word represents. So the word "red" is printed in blue ink, and so on. The task is to quickly go through the list naming the color of the ink. We use directed attention to inhibit the word we see while naming the ink color. The more mentally fatigued we are the harder this task is to do, so our error rate is related to the state of our directed attention. But, interestingly, if the color words were spelled out in a language that we don't know, or the words were just nonsense syllables, then the task is easy to do.
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