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Looking at nature boosts cognitive ability, study shows

Posted on 06-03-15 in Behavioral Health, Mental Health

Looking at nature boosts cognitive ability, study shows

Nature is magnificent. Few things in life can compare to walking in a park filled with flowers or watching the sun set over the ocean. A breath of fresh air can bring inspiration or dissipate a headache. It’s no mystery, then, that people tend to feel better – and think better – when they’re outside.

According to a recently published study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, however, simply looking at pictures of nature is enough to provide people with a cognitive boost.

The study

In this research study, participants were given a computerized task designed to measure how well they could maintain attention. The task, known as the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), involved the numerals between “1” and “9” rapidly flashing on the screen. Participants had to press a key every time they saw a number – except for when they saw the number “3.” If they accidentally responded when they saw the number “3,” then their attention was considered to have wavered. Because the numbers appear so quickly – and because the task went on for a total of 225 trials and two rounds – it was very easy for a participant to eventually lose focus.

Between the two rounds of the SART, participants received a brief, 40-second break. During this break, the numbers on the computer screen disappeared. In their place, some participants saw a picture of a concrete city roof, whereas other participants saw a picture of a green roof. Green roofs, or gardens planted on rooftops, are an excellent way to conserve energy because the numerous plants cool down buildings and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. The particular green roof that the participants saw was a grassy field covered with flowers.

After this brief break, participants performed the SART once again. The participants who saw the green roof during their break felt “restored” and performed significantly better on the task. They hesitated less frequently when choosing whether or not to press a key and were less likely to make an error of omission, i.e. a failure to tap the keyboard when a number other than “3” appeared.

In other words, participants who saw the green roof during their break performed better than participants who saw the concrete roof.

What does this mean?

It’s not news that nature can improve cognitive abilities, but it is news that short breaks, or “microbreaks,” that feature nature have the potential to increase cognitive function as well. For most people, leaving their job in the middle of the day to experience nature is not practical. If simply viewing pictures of nature can improve a person’s ability to think, people who struggle with lack of productivity at work have a new way to fight their cloudy thoughts. Struggles with cognition are also associated with a wide range of psychiatric illnesses including schizophrenia, depression and substance addiction. These nature-themed microbreaks could prove especially valuable for people within these populations.

This study provides further evidence that green roofs are a positive addition to the city landscape. Although green roofs have yet to achieve popularity in the United States, they are currently mandated in newly constructed commercial buildings in France. (Buildings that elect not to include a green roof must include solar panels instead.) On the cutting edge, Facebook has recently installed a 9-acre green roof at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Green roofs currently provide many advantages and few disadvantages. It might not be long before entire cities are sprinkled with rooftop gardens.

Sovereign Health Group understands the importance of the outdoors for people recovering from mental health or substance abuse disorders. Sovereign Health is located in a beautiful, beachside town and provides patients with the opportunity for recreational outings. Sovereign Health is also one of the few treatment programs to provide equine therapy. For further questions, please contact 888-530-4614.

Written by Courtney Lopresti, Sovereign Health Group writer