The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature
Time and time again, we are reminded it is important to take time to get outside. Not only is spending time good for maintaining physical health, but it is highly beneficial for cognitive health. The great news is that these benefits of connecting with nature can be harnessed in many free or low-cost ways. In this blog post, we discuss the cognitive benefits of interacting with nature and share some ways that you and your client can connect with nature individually or together.
What does research say about the cognitive benefits of interacting with nature?
One study by the University of Michigan had 38 college students complete a mood assessment and a working memory task. After the students completed both of these tasks, they were asked to either walk through an arboretum or through downtown Ann Arbor. Students walked in one of the areas one visit and walked through the other area on their second visit. Walking environment order was counterbalanced across participants. After their walk, students were asked to complete the same mood assessment and working memory task.
Interestingly enough, students who walked through the arboretum on either visit performed better on the working memory task after they had completed a walk through the arboretum. This result is in line with attention restoration theory, which states that directed attention is a cognitive mechanism which is restored by interacting with nature as nature provides an environment conducive to stimulating involuntary attention and reducing the cognitive load of voluntary attention.
What about interacting with nature from indoors?
Sometimes, weather conditions or other variables may impact your ability to get outside. However, you can harness the cognitive benefits of nature from indoors. Another study by the University of Michigan tested 12 students on the same mood assessment and working memory task as the walking experiment, but instead of walking, had participants view pictures of nature or urban areas for 10 minutes. Researchers found that students who viewed pictures of nature instead of urban areas performed better on the working memory task.
So if you or your client has a screen saver or background of New York City or Paris, you may want to change your background to a nature scene, like this one of Banff, Alberta, Canada.
How can my client and I interact more with nature on a daily basis?
For therapists: Bring nature into your office by adding plants, pictures of nature, and maybe try using an essential oil diffuser with woodsy or fresh scents such as pine. Between clients, try taking a walk outside somewhere with grass, or make it a priority to have lunch outside in a calming environment.
For clients: Work with your client on identifying times where they can take a nature break. This can involve taking a walk in their neighborhood, taking a lunch break outside, or working on a gardening project in their homespace. You may also encourage your client to join a social group where outdoor activities and outings are central, which may also help your client practice social skills and engage in healthy habits.
For both therapists and clients: Try practicing shinrinyoku during one of your sessions. This practice may help your client communicate more effectively about their concerns, while the experience of nature reduces their anxieties.