Why the mind needs nature

lifestyle design — By on January 9, 2009 at 4:44 pm

I just came across an interesting article in the Boston Globe’s Ideas section. The main point of the piece is that our brains benefit from time in nature, which is something that fewer of us get these days because a majority of individuals reside in cities.

“The mind is a limited machine,”says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. “And we’re beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations.”

One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil…

This research is also leading some scientists to dabble in urban design, as they look for ways to make the metropolis less damaging to the brain. The good news is that even slight alterations, such as planting more trees in the inner city or creating urban parks with a greater variety of plants, can significantly reduce the negative side effects of city life. The mind needs nature, and even a little bit can be a big help.

Yes, a little is good. But apparently, a lot is better. City parks are nice, but researchers have found considerably more benefit from a diverse park, such as Central Park in New York or the Emerald Necklace park series in Boston, than from a plain old green space dotted with a few trees and sports fields.

In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life. When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should all give up city life for a natural environment, though, because researchers have also found that dense urban spaces are hotbeds of creativity and innovation.

Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the “concentration of social interactions” that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists.

The density of 18th-century London may have triggered outbreaks of disease, but it also led to intellectual breakthroughs, just as the density of Cambridge — one of the densest cities in America — contributes to its success as a creative center. One corollary of this research is that less dense urban areas, like Phoenix, may, over time, generate less innovation.

The lesson, apparently, is that cities (especially dense cities) are good, but city dwellers need to take more breaks for nature.

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