Saturday, January 22, 2011

Weekend Blog: Living in the Country makes you Smarter!

Well, roughly.  Via Andrew Sullivan, here's an interesting paper which compared the cognitive performance of undergraduates after taking a walk in a natural environment (a university arboretum) versus taking a walk on busy city streets.
We compare the restorative effects on cognitive functioning of interactions with natural versus urban environments. Attention restoration theory (ART) pro- vides an analysis of the kinds of environments that lead to improvements in directed-attention abilities. Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and ad- ditionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative. We present two experiments that show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities as measured with a backwards digit-span task and the Attention Network Task, thus validating attention resto- ration theory.

The statistical effect seems quite robust. Basically, in the first experiment, people tried to repeat digit sequences backwards (which stresses short term memory) for 35 minutes, then went for either kind of walk, then did another set of tests. Performance was measured by the average number of digits subjects could reverse. It improved by half a digit for the urban walk, but 1.5 digits for the country walk.

As a new rural telecommuter, that's all the excuse I need to head out snowshoeing at lunch after a busy morning of coding or statistical analysis.

8 comments:

Hypnos said...

I'd like to see a cross-cultural comparison made with some developing country. On a letter to the editor in the latest National Geographic, some Peace Corps operators reported that in Madagascar they showed pictures of natural and industrial/urban landscapes to children, and all the children liked the urban ones better. The reason was that there were cars and buildings and electricity in them - i.e. prosperity.

Wonder if they would perform better in school after walking through a busy NYC junction.

Paul said...

And the 'Internet environment' is even worse than the urban environment.

Mike said...

Interesting that they regard a university arboretum as a "natural" environment. I find very plausible their conclusion that a parklike setting is conducive to mental restoration -- but an actual natural environment, like those our ancestors evolved in, might not be. After all, such environments were filled with threats (like predators), risks, distractions, and things that had to be paid attention to, just like a modern city.

Stuart Staniford said...

Mike: the predators are a good point. Also, the homicidal raiding parties from the next tribe over. So natural environments are probably less stressful than they used to be (at least, when I go for a walk in the woods, I don't worry about either wolves or brigands).

Stuart Staniford said...

Hypnos - yeah, I agree it's not clear how far this would generalize cross-culturally.

Frozen in the North said...

Today, a study came out showing that the length of your commute is inversely related to you longevity... So, if you live and work in the countryside your're ok, if you live in the country but work in the city you are screwed!

Stuart Staniford said...

Frozen - do you have a link?

Stuart Staniford said...

BTW - speaking of enjoying urban views, that gives me an excuse to like to today's Bike Snob NYC post which is about the funniest thing I've read in twenty years.