Is A "Nature Deficit" Hurting Your Productivity?

Last Updated Jun 13, 2011 9:14 AM EDT

When you exercise, do you

a) go to the gym?

b) jog around your suburban or urban neighborhood?

c) walk, run or bike through a local park or reservation?

I do B, but apparently I'd be smarter (literally) if I did C. A growing body of research is looking at the benefits of being in nature and finding that exposure to the great outdoors improves cognitive function. Experts have called it ecopsychology or attention restoration therapy.

What the research shows
In one study, researchers from the University of Michigan asked a group of volunteers to complete a task designed to challenge memory and attention. The volunteers then took a walk in either a park or in downtown Ann Arbor. After the walk, volunteers returned to the lab and were retested on the task.

The performance on the memory and attention task greatly improved following the walk in the park, but did not improve in those who walked downtown.
Why nature makes you smarter
One reason say experts has to do with how nature affects your attention. You have two types of attention, involuntary, where you attention is captured by intriguing stimuli, and directed attention, where you control your attention. Directed attention is important for executive functioning, memory, resolving conflict and suppressing distractions.

Being in nature exposes you to soothing stimuli that engages your involuntary attention, giving your directed-attention a rest and a chance to become rejuvenated. When you are in a city, you are constantly vigilant, your directed-attention is turned on. The authors write:

...interacting with environments rich with inherently fascinating stimuli (e.g., sunsets) invoke involuntary attention modestly, allowing directed-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish.


Richard Luov coined the term "nature deficit disorder" to describe a condition of being so out of touch with nature that we lose humility, our spirituality, our humanity and we also are at higher risk of obesity, depression and other ailments. His first book, Last Child in the Woods, was about the negative effects of a nature deficit on children, but his new book, The Nature Principle, describes how adults are equally at risk of being estranged from nature.

If you can't be in nature today, get a screen saver of nature
In another part of the study, subjects who were simply shown photos of nature did better on cognitive function than those shown urban images. But the authors recommend you go out and experience the real thing.

Do you notice a difference in your ability to focus after being in nature?

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Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of flickr user Sky Eckstrom
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.