Your brain on greenery
A conversation with environmental psychologist Raymond De Young
Published: November 16, 2011
MT: And then basically one group would walk down the city street and another group would walk through the arboretum and then test them after that?
De Young: Exactly. We use the same length of walk with the same conditions, whether they're alone or walking with someone else, and roughly the same amount of difficulty walking. A nature walk, say walking down a tree-lined street produces a lot less mental fatigue, or produces more restoration, than a walk through a more urban area.
What's fascinating is that we don't have to use large wilderness expanses or huge beautiful parks, not that those aren't also effective, but it turns out that for the restoration of mental vitality, we don't need anything quite as dramatic. I think that's hopeful; a lot of our cities just don't have access to wilderness areas or beautiful arboretums.
MT: Some researchers in your field use the term "nature deficit disorder."
De Young: Long ago people didn't have to use anywhere near the amount of directed attention that we do, they didn't have that many distractions, they didn't have as many electronic gadgets that are always interrupting or distracting them. Many people spent more of their day out in nature. Or, if most of their work was indoors, nature was right out their door. But today, a good deal of our work is spent indoors, with abstract concepts, lots of distractions, and lots of interruptions. And very few of us have an opportunity to literally turn around and look at nature. These days, we have to purposefully go out and find nature.
We can add to this a second problem. Even aside from our work, people are spending more time indoors, whether it's watching television, playing games, e-mailing.
We see this most dramatically in our children. Back 40-50 years, your parents would send you outside to play, telling you to come back home for lunch. Then you'd go out again and come back home for dinner. For some of us, our parents would never see us in between. These days the kids are kept very close. Perhaps for good reasons, but the result is that they're not getting the same dose of nature as kids got years ago. There's been a subtle and incremental decrease in our access to nature. The term we're using is "nature deficit disorder," which is about kids, of all ages, not getting adequate access to nature. Some people have speculated that this might explain why there's more anxiety among our children, perhaps a little more anger.
MT: Is there a notion that if we improve our relationship with nature we'll be better shepherds of it?
De Young: Now you're jumping into what I'm currently working on. My belief is that burned-out people can't help heal the planet. If people are mentally fatigued, from their work or from trying to restore their directed attention in ways that don't work, then they're not going to be able to help themselves, their neighbors, their community or the environment.
A lot of what environmental conservation involves is restraint, it's not doing everything you want to do at the moment you want to do it. Think about something like saving energy or reducing emissions from cars. It involves planning your trips, coordinating with other people, thinking ahead. The very act of planning and scheduling a trip uses a lot of directed attention because you've got to think through and imagine the route you'll take, what stops need to be made, what needs to be done at each stop. And it turns out this kind of deep planning uses a lot of directed attention.
You can think about environmental stewardship as sustaining our relationship with nature. But it also involves social sustainability — maintaining the sustainability of the neighborhood, our relations to our family, our relations to one another.
I think people, cultures and societies, already know this. We already know that taking time off at the end of the week is really good for our well-being. It makes for a better community and a whole lot better person. Mental restoration is probably essential for environmental stewardship, social stewardship, community building and everyday civility.
I try to get my students to internalize this idea that mental restoration is the key to their living a better life. And more down-to-earth, I tell them they're going to do much better on their late-term projects and final exams if, towards the end of the term, they continue to take time to take walks in the woods or spend time at a park. Some listen, but others say that at the end of the term is when they don't have time for such activities. They wish they could, they know they're supposed to do it, but they can't find the time. And my response is if you believe you don't have the time then you've flunked the class — that's exactly when you most need to take a walk.
Raymond De Young is currently on sabbatical from the University of Michigan, among other things working with co-editor Thomas Princen, also professor in U-M's School of Natural Resources, on The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. The MIT press publication is slated for January 2012. A number of De Young's papers can be read at tinyurl.com/3paa55d.
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