The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature (Walking makes you smart)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Just looking at a picture of nature was relaxing enough to actually produce some cognitive benefits." -- Jonah Lehrer


Jonah Lehrer


Molly Webster

Comments [6]


Agreed: unsafe does not qualify as "natural." And, a walk through Redwood Forest is a wonderful experience. So is a walk down Columbus Ave in September and through Central Park. A walk in Stockholm can be really enjoyable, even peaceful. But, when one talks about nature being peaceful or the city being chaotic (as in a previous reply), they are talking of a small subset of nature or of urban life. Here on the east coast when one takes a walk in nature, it is nature that has been set aside and protected so that it remains "natural." It is groomed to look and feel like we want it to be. In that sense it is a fabricated environment like our cities. ("Fabricated" does not equal "bad.") I don't buy that a walk in "nature" is necessarily beneficial as compared to any other environment. I'm curious why the researchers even felt it was necessary to bring up the concept of "nature." Many places on the earth would qualify is stress-free and peaceful.

Nov. 13 2008 02:31 PM

I don't think it needs to be wild, unruly or unsafe to qualify as "natural." There are gorgeous trails through the Redwood Forest or right here on the East Coast (the West Woods in Connecticut comes to mind). The trails are maintained and in some cases, are cleared and very easy to walk on (a "nature walk"). This doesn't make them any less enjoyable or bucolic. I can vouch for the cognitive benefits of being in nature anecdotally. Even something like the beach in Miami, where buildings and boats are within eye shot doesn't make the experience of being in the ocean or watching the pelicans dip into the water looking for fish any less enjoyable or cognitively relaxing.

Nov. 13 2008 12:22 PM

But seriously, I found this piece very much at odds with my experiences walking in the city and walking in nature. I like doing both, but except for walking around Times Sq which is thick with people and advertising, I would say a New York City walk is often tremendously relaxing and more so now in Fall when air is a bit fresher and the light muted by the angle of the sun.

I also found the argument of the piece weak when it comes to defining "nature." I bet most people's idea of nature is driving to a trail of some sort. It's really not much less fabricated as a concept as a city block. Nature might be a place where families can take walks together away from the computers and the cars and the news, but this "nature" by most people's definition is safe and known and nothing bad happens there. Not that bad things are required. I just think you should fess up and admit that "nature" was made by us to look "natural."

Nov. 13 2008 09:55 AM

Walking in nature can be relaxing, except when your face and any other exposed skin is surrounded by mosquitoes. Oh, and watch out for that snake you almost stepped on!! Hope it wasn't poisonous. But no need to worry. You're in "nature." Now that I think of it, since we started our walk from the parking lot we've been on this expertly groomed path. Let's go off-trail and find some real nature! What's the matter? Why aren't you taking in all the beauty and letting your mind wander now that you are away from that stressful city? Oh no! You twisted your ankle because you weren't paying attention to the rocks below. Maybe we should make our way back to that man-made path. This is too much nature. Now, where was that path?

Nov. 13 2008 09:36 AM
Gene Toland

Yes, John Lehrer is on to something. A number of people in the field of organizational learning have known for sometime that there are cognitive and psychological benefits to walking, sitting in nature alone and in silence: it helps to redirect your attention and be more present to whatever or whomever you are involved with. It enables us to focus more sharply our awareness and intuition creative powers. Check out and for a more comprehensive picture and possible new news story see book by Otto Schramer of MIT- Theory U.
Nice show, Adaora-and John H. -thanks!

Nov. 13 2008 09:25 AM
Hugh Sansom

What a surprise. Evolutionary psychology has largely been debunked by the discovery that the human genome is vastly smaller than assumed in the early days of the Human Genome Project.

But, we don't need science to tell us that for hundreds of thousands of years, humans and our ancestors did all thinking in rural, pastoral settings. The real question is just how inimical to human well-being urban chaos is.

Think of music. Which is more conducive to thought or reflection -- Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony or Einsturzende Neubauten? (And I love both.)

Nov. 13 2008 07:01 AM

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