A few months back Robert posted an entry on “Nature Deficit Disorder“–the idea that children today don’t get enough time outdoors. The concern, according to Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods” is that interaction with nature helps develop important cognitive abilities. I said at the time that I was unaware of any research supporting the idea. I have since learned that there are data supporting something like this claim, at least.
The basic finding is not that interaction with nature is important for development, but that it is “restorative.” Several studies published in the last few years have shown that people do better on certain attention-demanding tasks after a brief interaction with nature. A recent study (Berman et al, 2008, Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212) provides a convincing argument for what is behind the effect.
Here’s the basic idea: there are two ways that attention can be directed. In one case, attention is directed to something that you find inherently intriguing, e.g., a beautiful painting, or the flames in a fireplace. In the other case, you direct attention to something that you want to think about (and you suppress attention going elsewhere). This latter type of attention is more fatiguing. This distinction between kinds of attention has been around for over 100 years, and a good deal of behavioral and neural data collected in the last thirty years supports it.
Interaction with nature provides, for most of us, lots of stimuli of inherent interest. We like to look at birds, flowers, and trees. Urban environments, in contrast, provide too many stimuli to which we direct attention–for example, the car that you’re afraid won’t slow down at the intersection–and also pelts us with so many stimuli that we must do a lot of suppression to avoid being overwhelmed. So interaction with nature is restorative because it provides a rest for the directive attention system. Interestingly, the experimenters observed a difference in cognitive performance even after watching slides of nature vs. slides of urban environments. So it’s not just the peace and quiet of nature that’s behind the effect.
This directive type of attention is, many people believe, especially important to schooling. This finding fits well with other data showing that recess does provide a cognitive boost for students.
Would it help to project slides of natural scenes at urban schools during recess? It might be worth a try. The size of the effect reported in this experiment was not small.