This post is the third article in weekly five part series exploring the mental health benefits of hiking, from a scientific and a first-hand perspective. The author has asked to remain anonymous, but if you stay tuned for all five articles, you will be amazed and inspired by the ending.
Scientists have found that nature boosts our cognitive performance, especially our attention. When you’re working on something (especially something that isn’t inherently interesting), you’re engaging a type of effortful attention called “directed attention.” Directed attention is a limited mental resource. Eventually, you’re going to have to take a break. Venturing out into the natural world may be one of the best things you can do to combat mental fatigue and improve your ability to focus and direct your attention effectively.
In the scientific world, this idea is known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART). (1) Nature’s ability to restore your attentional capacities is profound: after a 20-minute walk in the park, children with ADHD perform just as well on an attention task as if they had taken a dose of Ritalin. (2) The results are clear: nature restores attention, even for the attention-deficit. ART proposes how this works:
Viewing a natural landscape elicits involuntary fascination; specifically, a “soft fascination” that doesn’t require your full attention. Hikers are likely familiar with this state of mind. As you enjoy the scenery around you, your mind wanders freely. You may reflect, or plan for the future. This gives your brain a chance to restore its directed attention abilities, thereby reducing mental fatigue. (3) Soft fascination with nature is an entry into a brain state called the “default mode network.” This is the resting state of your brain. The default mode network is associated with introspection and daydreaming. While your resting brain is restoring your directed attention resources, it is more likely to engage in divergent thinking, making creative connections between seemingly unrelated neural networks. This is one reason why a hiking trip into the wilderness can boost creative problem-solving by a full 50%. (4)
Restoring your directed attention helps you do far more than just focus on tasks. Directed attention is thought to power other major cognitive processes, including your executive functioning and self-regulation. (5) These are psychological processes that allow you to manage your emotions, control your behavior, plan effectively, reason through problems, and pursue goals. They include impulse control, your ability to tune out distractions, your short-term memory, and your ability to think about multiple concepts simultaneously. (6, 7) Immersing yourself in nature, by way of restoring directed attention, re-fuels these critical mental functions.
It should come as no surprise, then, that studies correlate nature exposure with several cognitive boosts. One of these is an improvement in working memory, which is your short-term capacity to hold information in your mind (like phone numbers, or a list of names). (8, 9) Even people with Major Depressive Disorder, which compromises working memory, exhibit a significant increase in memory span right after a 50-minute walk in nature. (10) The cognitive benefits reach beyond memory, too. “Greening” a geriatric ward slows the rate of cognitive decline in seniors. (11)
Both nature exposure and exercise boost physical health, mental health, and cognitive performance. When you add nature and exercise together, these benefits compound. (12) Exercise alone boosts self-esteem but exercising outside boosts it even more. (13) In one study, people who used forests for exercise were half as likely to experience poor mental health compared to others who exercised in non-natural environments. (14) From an evolutionary perspective, this outcome is not surprising. For hundreds of thousands of years, we survived by hunting and gathering. We were made to travel by foot – in particular, to walk long distances – in nature.
- Garside, Ruth. “Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review.” European Centre for Environment & Human Health. University of Exeter Medical School. 2021.
- AF Taylor & FE Kuo. “Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park.” Journal of Attention Disorders. 12.5 (2008): 402-9.
- Ackerman, Courtney E. “What is Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART)?” com. 9 Nov 2020. [https://positivepsychology.com/attention-restoration-theory/]
- RA Atchley, DL Strayer, & P Atchley. “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings.” PLoS One. 7.12 (2012): e51474. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3520840/]
- S Kaplan & MG Berman. “Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science. 5.1 (2010): 43-57.
- “Executive Functions.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_functions]
- “Emotional Self-Regulation.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_self-regulation]
- KE Schertz & MG Berman. “Understanding nature and its cognitive benefits.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. 28.5 (2019): 496-502.
- MG Berman, J Jonides, & S Kaplan. “The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature.” Psychological science. 19.12 (2008): 1207-1212.
- MG Berman et al. “Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression.” Journal of affective disorders. 140.3 (2012): 300-305.
- AE van den Berg et al. “Greening a Geriatric Ward Reduces Functional Decline in Elderly Patients and is Positively Evaluated by Hospital Staff.” Journal of Aging and Environment. (2020): 1-20.
- J Barton, R Bragg, C Wood, & J Pretty. Green Exercise: Linking Nature, Health, and Well-being. 17 June 2016.
- J Pretty, J Peacock, M Sellens, & M Griffin. “The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise.” International Journal of Environmental Health Research.5 (2005): 319-337.
- R Mitchell. “Is physical activity in natural environments better for mental health than physical activity in other environments?” Social Science & Medicine. 91 (2013): 130-134.