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A couple holding hands and walking on a path in the park with trees.

The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature


This is how green areas in our cities improve not only physical health but also the overall brain functions.

A determining part of cities is its green areas: those public spaces where vegetation and nature form a sort of urban island where the daily grind is softened and everyday coexistence regains strength. Parks not only greatly improve the air quality of a city but also improve our moods, acting as a sort of emotional fertilizer.

To these social benefits we can now add a more individual, personal one. According to a study lead by Marc Berman of the University of Michigan, vegetation within a city positively impacts our brain function and helps develop neurological connections.

For his study, Berman asked volunteers to answer simple questions while testing their memory and attention span, and then divided the volunteers into two groups: the first did these tests before and after taking a walk downtown Ann Arbor, the other before and after walking through the university campus, which is full of trees and vegetation.

The difference was outstanding. The participants who took a walk through nature got considerably higher scores. According to the researchers, the difference is greatly due to the overstimulating elements present within a cityscape, witch we need to actively notice and process in order to function. A natural environment, in contrast, promotes rest and recovery for our brains, almost as when we are sleeping. The brain takes advantage of these moments in nature to reset and update its information.

“Easy and brief interactions with nature can produce noticeable changes in cognitive control. Considering walks through nature as mere recreation fails to recognize the vital role it plays in our cognitive functions,” concluded Berman and his colleagues in this 2008 study.

In early 2012, however, Berman’s research group continued to study the effects of nature in the brain, but this time over the clinical depression of hospitalized patients. A variation which nevertheless took the risk of worsening the patient’s symptoms.

In this case there were also two groups: those who walked through the university arboretum and those who walked through city streets. After one week, the groups switched scenes.

After verifying the effect of nature in the patients, researchers found similar results as in the first experiment. That is: those who were in contact with nature had substantially longer attention spans, and the rise in their emotional levels was yet more surprising. After their walks among trees they reported a “positive effect” in their overall temper.

So, if we needed yet more information on the benefits of nature, both of these studies strongly indicate that nature heals and refreshes the two sides –according to Western traditions– that make up our being: our rational, cognitive side, and our emotional one. We only need to take a stroll through our city parks.

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