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The Effects of Nature on Cognition and Memory

All of us occasionally suffer from “brain fog.” It is when we are unable to focus on a task, become frustrated and are easily irritated. Have you ever noticed how taking a breath of fresh air suddenly makes you feel refreshed and rejuvenated? It is as if you have been injected with energy. The expression “use it or lose it” is commonly used in the UK. As with all parts of the body, processes can slow down if the brain is not exercised; keeping it active is of huge importance. That 10-minute break from your computer screen, watching wild birds on a feeder, or squirrels running about a park while you stretch your legs are examples of how we can interact mentally and emotionally with nature and recharge part of our brain.

As a child, I had the good fortune of being raised in a village in the countryside. When not in school, it was the norm to go out into the surrounding fields to explore, climb trees and enjoy the fresh air. Many of my friends recall similar childhoods. We didn’t play video games, there were fewer channels on TV, and indoor entertainment usually consisted of reading or craft activities. Lessons at school were punctuated with playtime on the field, running at full speed. We felt refreshed and ready to concentrate on learning afterward, the cobwebs having been thoroughly swept away.

Science now shows the restorative capacity of the natural world to be true; nature does indeed refresh us and also has a positive effect on our brains. When studying or at work, there is a need to focus for extended periods of time. However, the capacity to apply direct attention (focus on a specific thing or cognitive process) declines over time; we start to daydream, clarity of thought is lost, and the ability to concentrate reduces. The sights and sounds from the natural environment generally arouse our curiosity in a gentle manner. No direct attention is necessary; the mind has a chance to replenish. An urban environment can be jarring and dangerous; close attention must be paid to our surroundings in order to avoid accidents; being hit by vehicles or knocking over pedestrians. In such an environment, our brains are not able to relax and recuperate.

Studies on university students in the UK have demonstrated that taking 15-minute breaks in a natural environment resulted in an enhanced capacity to complete tasks and retain information. When given four mental-agility tests to complete, their capacity for directed attention showed significant recovery after the outdoor break. The study also showed that short breaks involving exercise in a natural setting had a more positive effect on recovery from directed attention fatigue than a sedentary break indoors. Although both actual and virtual exposure to nature influences cognitive ability, memory and attention, physically being in a natural environment produces a greater positive effect.

Similar research on the elderly comparing the effects of restorative breaks taken within their care home to those taken in its garden where they interacted with nature, showed that after time spent in the natural setting, the test participants’ ability to concentrate on tasks had increased significantly. Similarly, studies conducted involving memory tests (remembering a list of numbers or symbols) also showed that interacting with the natural world improved the participants’ short-term memory. With an aging global population, conditions such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s are growing concerns. Recent Australian research into the effects of exercise on cognitive decline has also shown that an optimal amount can improve spatial learning. This research is now being used to try and reverse the effects of Dementia; tying exercise into improving neural connectivity in the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for memory, learning, and emotions). This potential improvement in our neural networks paired with increased concentration and memory brought about by being surrounded by nature could lead to a winning combination for our long-term mental health.

For those of us whose lives revolve around working in an office, possibly with little chance to escape to a green space during lunch break, the view from the window is an important asset in work performance as well as job satisfaction. A green outdoor environment has been shown to increase workers’ mind function and ability to organize their work and combat mental fatigue. If physical access to that green space is not possible, the view from the window provides a ‘micro-break’ where the brain can relax.

Thus, natural environments provide important ‘psychological ecosystem services’ benefiting cognitive flexibility, the working memory, and attention control. We should try to capitalize on the potential benefits of outdoor breaks, incorporate attractive outdoor spaces on campuses, workspace and care homes, and facilitate movement through these to enhance our concentration and overall feelings of well-being.

EJ Taylor is an environmental biologist, entomologist and teacher with over 20 years’ experience in working internationally. EJ currently works as an Intervention English Language Specialist in a College of Further and Higher Education in Agriculture and Animal Management in Lincolnshire, the UK. EJ holds a fascination for the natural world and the relationships between species. Of particular interest are the effects of the natural environment on human well-being, mental health and cognition. When not surrounded by nature, EJ can be found creating artwork, cooking, pottering in the vegetable garden or traveling (sometimes on a classic British motorcycle).