How To Make Improving Cognitive Performance A Walk In The Park

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James Hewitt is a performance scientist, and Chief Commercial & Innovation Officer at OPTIVIO.

We are spending more time indoors than any generation before us. Some research suggests that we spend almost 90% of our time inside1. There are plenty of good reasons to go outdoors. However, did you know that spending time in nature, and even looking at pictures of nature, can measurably improve cognitive performance? Read on to discover what aspects of cognitive performance are enhanced and how much time is required to enjoy this brain upgrade.

We Are An Indoor Generation

While many of us love spending time outside, we are part of the indoor generation. All too often, our days are spent moving from one enclosed space to another. This pattern of living is a recent development. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent large portions of their waking hours out of doors.

The benefits of spending time outside are numerous, ranging from better regulated circadian rhythms and improved sleep, to elevated mood. Several experiments have also demonstrated that spending time in nature can boost cognitive performance, but the results are varied and bear taking a closer look.

Nature Switches On Your Brain

As you walk down and the street and see everyone fixated on their smartphone, it’s easy to forget that our species is built for hunting and gathering. Natural environments feature the resources that enable human survival: food, water, raw materials and shelter. When we spend time in nature, our body and brain “switches on.” Even very brief exposures to natural stimuli, such as viewing images of nature for a short duration, can have a measurable impact. This is particularly true for the regions of the brain in the prefrontal cortex that are associated with executive functions and directed attention.

Executive brain functions

Attention Restoration Theory (ART) proposes a model to describe how natural environments can improve cognitive performance. ART distinguishes between two forms of attention: directed attention and effortless attention (3).

  1. Directed attention enables us to remain focused on effortful tasks for extended periods.
  2. Involuntary attention is effortless, automatic, and is induced by intrinsically interesting or exciting stimuli.

For example, if you spend the morning at your computer, even if you’re just working through e-mails, your attention will be effortfully directed at this task. It’s fatiguing, and motivation is likely to drop the more time you spend on the job. Eventually, you will notice that your directed attention begins to fatigue. However, if you were to spend a few minutes gazing out of the window, or if you took a walk in a park, your cognitive resources and motivation will begin to recover. 

attention restoration therapy

Measuring The Impact Of Nature On Cognitive Performance

A recent study set out to measure the impact of nature on cognitive performance by reviewing several experiments which contrasted natural and urban environments and measuring cognitive performance using a test called the Backwards Digit Span (BDS). The BDS is a classic test of working memory performance and poses an extreme challenge for directed attention. The test requires

  • Encoding: Taking in the information.
  • Maintenance: Keeping hold of the information.
  • Active Processing: Manipulating the information (reversing the digit order, in this case).
  • Updating: Refreshing the information in working memory.

Performance in the BDS likely translates to the real world, as working memory is such a fundamental cognitive capability. In fact, the name “working memory” undersells just how vital this capability is. A more helpful way to think about working memory is as a system for “attention to memory,” rather than as a memory system in itself4,5.

Nature Images to Improve Cognitive Performance

When we are exposed to trees, leaves and clouds in the sky — natural stimuli featuring fractal patterns — our mood improves, motivation augments and cognitive performance increases2. The extent of the contrast between natural and urban also seems to play a role: the more natural the environment, the better.

Nature cognitive performance

The review also supports the idea that there is a dose-response relationship between spending time in nature and improved performance: longer durations and higher frequency appears to have a greater effect. However, even looking at pictures of nature for 10 minutes is associated with positive, measurable improvements.

Based on the study results, ideally, you would find the time to take a walk in a natural environment for anywhere between 15-55 minutes. The studies examined in the review did not include other activities, but the ART model suggests other activities in natural settings should be effective, providing that they do not require directed attention. If you’re stuck in the office or on a plane, for example, you could still boost your cognitive performance by watching a few minutes of video montage. There are even several “relaxation channels” available on YouTube that could be effective.

In summary, you should think about the content, duration and frequency of the time you spend outside, in as natural a landscape as possible, for both wellbeing and performance benefits. 

References

1. Klepeis NE, Nelson WC, Ott WR, Robinson JP, Tsang AM, Switzer P, et al. The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants. J Expo Anal Environ Epidemiol. 2001;11(3):231–52.

2. Stenfors CUD, Van Hedger SC, Schertz KE, Meyer FAC, Smith KEL, Norman GJ, et al. Positive effects of nature on cognitive performance across multiple experiments: Test order but not affect modulates the cognitive effects. Front Psychol. 2019;10(JUL).

3. Kaplan S. The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. J Environ Psychol. 1995;15(3):169–82.

4. Oberauer K, Süß H-M, Wilhelm O, Sander N. Individual Differences in Working Memory Capacity and Reasoning Ability. In: Conway A, Jarrold C, Kane M, Miyake A, Towse J, editors. Variation in Working Memory. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2007. p. 49–75.

5. Souza AS, Oberauer K. In search of the focus of attention in working memory: 13 years of the retro-cue effect. Attention, Perception, Psychophys [Internet]. 2016;78(7):1839–60. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.3758/s13414-016-1108-5

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