In The Globe and Mail article ” Why is walking in the woods so good for you?”, Alex Hutchinson explores the results from a study, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders, that found that volunteers suffering from depression who took a 50-minute walk in a woodland park improved their cognition, as measured by the ability to remember a random string of digits and repeat them in reverse order, compared to those who took a walk through city streets. An earlier study found similar results in subjects who weren’t depressed:
“ The lead researcher Marc Berman, a research fellow at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, makes a distinction between two types of attention: “voluntary,” in which we consciously focus on something; and “involuntary,” in which something grabs our attention. The ability to direct voluntary attention is crucial in daily life (and for cognitive tasks like remembering random digits), but it’s easily fatigued. Dr. Berman and his colleagues believe that going for a walk in the park gives voluntary attention a break, since your mind has a chance to wander aimlessly and be engaged – involuntarily but gently – by your surroundings.
“In a lot of natural areas, you’re away from loud noises and distractions,” Dr. Berman explains. “It tends to be less crowded so you don’t have to worry about bumping into people, and it also has interesting stimulation to look at, which captures your attention automatically.”
In contrast, honking horns and traffic lights and crowded sidewalks – and pretty much every other ingredient of modern life in a big city – constantly force you to exert your voluntary attention to react or block them out, leaving you more cognitively depleted.” (Hutchinson, 2012)[i]
Scientists are also beginning to demonstrate that urban settings force us to focus on our narrow attention (voluntary attention in the above quote), which in the long term can create tremendous stress. Humans, just like other animals, need to use their broad attention (involuntary attention) as well. Children are born today in very demanding sensory, emotional and social environment. Differently then previous generations, the stimuli they are exposed to is often artificial. Given how much less able to filter input than adults they are, their brain functions must have to adapt to these bombardment of toxins. Adding to these attention seeking environment poor air quality, and as Hutchinson points out:
” A single exposure to polluted air can trigger lung and heart problems, and chronic exposure has been linked to cognitive decline. Even downtown parks and riverside bike paths are likely to have significantly better air quality than busy city streets, and trees offer an additional protective effect. The level of vehicle emissions just 200 meters away from a road is already four times lower than it is on the sidewalk next to the road.”
No wonder a walk in nature or relationships with animals can help. In nature all senses can relax while being highly stimulated. Smell, hearing, empathy, skin, energy sensors are less exposed to toxins and recharging on natural sounds, smells, air, magnetic energy etc. I think that part of the answer is that we can easily sync with natural waves and fields and that in such settings we no longer sense the technological and pollution layers that are so intensely packed in cities.
I have experienced the difference for myself when in Nicaragua. Air, water, wind, soil and sand create an environment that allows my body and mind to relax and become at one with the environment. We are animals, we need to be in sync with what surrounds us. This is particularly important to highly and sensory sensitive children.
[i] Hutchinson, Alex. “Why is walking in the woods so good for you?”. The Globe and Mail. May. 27 2012. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/fitness/why-is-walking-in-the-woods-so-good-for-you/article4209703/