Relaxing Realities – Brainy Proof behind the Value of Recreation

Sep 7, 2011

Topic: Outdoor Consumer

The New York Times reported on the recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index report, showing that “Americans now feel worse about their jobs — and work environments — than ever before.” The Index has been polling over 1,000 adults every day since January 2008, and the current results show that people of all ages, across income levels, are more “detached from what they do” than ever before. There doesn’t seem to be much improvement on the horizon, and Gallup “estimates the cost of America’s disengagement crisis at a staggering $300 billion in lost productivity annually.”

The New York Time’s own research revealed that “Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier,” and as the bulk of the nation is focused on job and economic woes, opportunities to pursue relaxation and peace of mind (especially without a corresponding financial cost) are strongly desired.

Turns out the benefits of even a short break, especially if the outdoors is involved, are numerous. Looking at “mental refreshment” as the main goal, The Wall Street Journal recently published research results from Dr. Marc Berman, a post-doctoral researcher at Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, and his partners at the University of Michigan as they studied whether interacting with nature can be therapeutic for people with disorders including depression and anxiety.

The power of the outdoors in the realm of “mental refreshment,” even in small doses, is undeniable. According to the Berman research, “performance on memory and attention tests improved by 20 percent after study subjects paused for a walk through an arboretum. When these people were sent on a break to stroll down a busy street in town, no cognitive boost was detected.”  So, given similar activities, the mere image of the outdoors stimulates productivity. What a great revelation!

The Wall Street Journal reported that “In a follow-up study, the researchers had participants take a break for ten minutes in a quiet room to look at pictures of a nature scene or city street. Again, they found that cognitive performance improved after the nature break, even though it was only on paper. Although the boost wasn’t as great as when participants actually took the walk among the trees, it was more effective than the city walk, says Dr. Berman.”

Though brain science is an emerging trend that has yet to saturate everyday living, the soft-science evidence of the mental benefits of an outdoor-involved lifestyle tells a good story for the industry. The fact that some benefits can be realized from merely thinking about the outdoors, not necessarily pursuing an outdoor activity, strengthens the ties that individuals already have with the outdoors and what it means.

Just to be clear, energizing the brain through exposure to the outdoors was not tied to mood. It’s not about making you happy or making people feel something, it’s purely science on how the human brain reacts to outdoor stimulus. The researchers admit that the brain result was not tied to participants being in a better mood, as some participants were tasked with walking in the arboretum during wintertime in Michigan. “You don’t necessarily have to enjoy the walk to get the benefit,” says Dr. Berman. “What you like is not necessarily going to be good for you.”

According to the researchers, nature images engage our “involuntary attention”, which is triggered when the brain is attracted to something interesting that doesn’t require intense concentration. While noticing a pretty picture or walking through a garden, we can still talk and think while noticing the background. This is what creates the respite from “directed attention” which requires focus for the brain to work on complex problems or potential threats. Driving a car or working on a computer requires directed attention, which can wear on a person after long periods of time. The science behind all of this suggests that involuntary attention activities allow for recovery time from the more intense directed attention that we use so regularly.

That’s not to say that a nature-filled environment is a pre-requisite for mental health, but some natural elements, like plants or trees down a city street, seem to be the key. Determining exactly what natural elements lead to the brain benefits is the next step for Dr. Berman and his team.

At the end of the scientific trail, it’s good to know that material proof is available to support what the outdoor industry has always known: including the outdoors in everyday life is a good thing, no matter how you choose to make that happen.