It might be more important than you think to take that stroll in the park: A recent study suggests that walking in nature might actually benefit your brain.
The study, published in Psychological Science and conducted by University of Michigan researchers, found that when people spent time in nature, as opposed to an urban environment, their attention and memory improved. Thirty-eight students participated in the experiment, in which they had to listen to a string of numbers and then repeat them backwards. This task served as a measure of the participants' ability to focus their attention, and also tested their working memory. After completing this task, the participants were asked to walk through either downtown Ann Arbor or an arboretum equally distant from the campus. Once they returned, they performed the task again.
The results showed that participants performed significantly better on the attention and memory task after they walked through the arboretum. Participants also rated their walk through the park as more refreshing than the downtown walk. A second experiment in the study found that people even considered pictures of nature more refreshing and enjoyable than pictures of urban settings.
In explaining their results, the researchers cite a scientific theory that dates back to William James. This theory suggests there are two types of attention, involuntary attention and "directed attention," which requires more focus and cognitive control. The authors argue that nature captivates people's involuntary attention while allowing them to rest their directed attention, freeing up mental resources to concentrate on other things. On the other hand, urban settings are filled with stimuli that vie for one's attention and demand a reaction, from honking cars to giant advertisements.
The researchers encourage people to look at nature as not just an amenity, but a form of therapy—"a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost."