The benefits of nature
An article published last year on the website of Scientific American magazine asked and sought to address the question of whether city life poses a risk to mental health. While it is impossible to offer a definitive answer to such a question, there is a wealth of research evidence which suggests that, at the very least, those of us who live in cities can face stresses and challenges to our well-being that are not shared by rural dwellers.
That article highlighted findings reported across a range of studies dating back to the 1930s, making connections between urban living and greater risk for a range of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. However, as the article notes, it would be a mistake to attribute cause here and conclude that such studies ‘prove’ that cities are ‘bad for you’. We have addressed previously the need to be wary about making such leaps based on corelational evidence, and this is another such example. Yes, a relationship appears to be exist between urban life and greater susceptibility to some mental health issues, but that evidence does not offer a definitive answer on the direction of that relationship, i.e., we must be cautious when addressing matters of cause.
As the author of the article, Diana Kwon, points out: “A number of factors, including elements of the social environment (such as inequality and isolation) and physical stressors (such as pollution and noise) could explain how the city erodes well-being. Conversely, people predisposed to mental illness may simply be more likely to move into urban environments.”
Regardless of root causes, it would appear that there is ample evidence at our disposal to draw the conclusion that there are particular strains associated with urban existence, and perhaps such settings may not be ideal for many of us; however, that is not where this conversation ends.
Further research suggests that it is not merely that more rural settings tend not to offer some of the downsides associated with their urban counterparts. Rural life will tend to bring stresses of its own; however, the key observation to make here is that there appear to be benefits attached to exposure to natural settings above and beyond merely being away from the noise and mania of cities. Put simply, we are now seeing increasing awareness of the mental health benefits of being in nature.
Marc Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan began a 2008 Psychological Science article on the cognitive benefits of interacting with nature as follows: “Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost. Such a therapy has been known to philosophers, writers, and laypeople alike: interacting with nature.”
They go on to describe two experiments they conducted to test the benefits of exposure to nature, with an emphasis on measuring performance in directed-attention activities.
In the first experiment, 38 participants initially completed a mood questionnaire and then performed a directed-attention task, i.e., hearing number sequences and then being asked to repeat them in reverse order. Then, they were assigned to either take a 50-55 minute walk in a park or through the heart of a town. All then returned to the lab and again took the mood measure and performed the numbers task.
The authors reported that those participants who walked in the park recorded significant improvements in their directed-attention task performance, with no such change achieved by those who walked in the town, and that mood scores seemed to have no bearing on this outcome.
In the second experiment, 12 participants initially completed the same mood measure and numbers task as in the first, along with a test designed to identify three specific attentional functions: alerting, orienting, and executive function. Then, participants were assigned to view either pictures of nature or urban areas. The picture viewing lasted 10 minutes and saw each participant exposed to 50 scenes, each of which they rated on a three-point scale, in terms of how much they liked the image. All then performed the initial tasks a second time.
The authors found improved performance as it related to executive function, but only among participants who viewed the pictures of nature, while also replicating the results of the first experiment on the numbers task.
These findings are interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which being that they suggest that natural environments are beneficial for the working of the individual mind. However, it seems to go further than that, as the second experiment shows that merely being shown pictures of nature can achieve the same or similar effects. The implications of such findings may run deep, and we will examine these and other points next time.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.