Nature: The Not-So-New Wonder Drug

Originally published in The Living Land column in The Hawk Eye on Aug. 26, 2016.

Ever have one of those days where you just can’t seem to focus? You misplace your phone or your keys or you find your mind wandering and you can’t seem to corral it back to the task at hand. Whether you’re a student facing a busy class schedule or an adult balancing a heavy workload, our busy lives have a tendency to leave us mentally exhausted.

It’s called mental fatigue and researchers suggest there’s an all-natural treatment that can help fight it.

They call it Nature and it’s pretty powerful stuff.

Research conducted at the University of Michigan in 2008 found a 20 percent improvement in memory performance and attention spans after people spent just one hour interacting with nature. The researchers had participants take different walking routes around Ann Arbor. Some took an urban route down busy streets, others took a more nature-filled route through the University’s botanical gardens and arboretum. When participants experienced some nature on their walks, their memory and attention scores improved. When they encountered nothing but urban scenes, they showed no improvements.

Interestingly, the nature-induced improvement was even consistent across all seasons; the benefits of exposure to nature were the same in 80 degree summer heat as they were on 25 degree winter days. The subjects simply enjoyed the experiences more when the weather was nice.

These findings are far from new. Research published in 1991 tested the restorative value of experiences in a natural environment. The study had three groups of participants subjected to focus-depleting work. One group then took a walk in nature, one walked through a city and one group just sat and relaxed. The participants were then tested on a proofreading task to judge how much their focus had been restored. Sure enough, the group that had just spent time in nature scored the best.
Nature appears to have such powerful effects on fighting mental fatigue that research indicates that simply seeing pictures of it can improve memory and attention. The researchers at the University of Michigan tested this theory the same way as in their walking study but instead of participants walking, they simply looked at photos of nature and cities. Once again, the participants’ memory and attention scores improved by 20 percent after viewing photos of nature but not at all after viewing images of the city.

But the benefits of nature aren’t confined to simply reducing mental fatigue. Nature has been found effective at treating a number of clinical issues as well. A 2004 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found activities in natural settings reduced attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children more than activities in other settings. Many other studies have found similar effects.

One 2008 study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders reported that just 20 minutes in a park had an effect “comparable to those reported for recent formulations of methylphenidate” on children clinically diagnosed with ADHD. In other words, 20 minutes in nature was found in this study to have the same effect as a dose of Ritalin, the most commonly prescribed drug to treat ADHD.

This is significant considering the CDC estimates approximately 11 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 17, or about 6.4 million, have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011.
A recent study led by researchers at Stanford University suggests nature is also effective at reducing the risk of depression. The study found a 90 minute walk in nature reduced activity in the part of the brain linked with depression. Similar to the Michigan study, the researchers found that walking through an urban environment did not have such an effect.

The study was conducted to explore the phenomena that urban residents have a 20 percent higher risk for anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk for mood disorders.

Researchers throughout the world report similar findings. University research in the Netherlands found simply looking at images of nature improved moods of participants. Research from Australia found nature exposure reduced stress and anxiety. Japanese researchers from the Nippon Medical School found walking through a forest versus walking through a city led to decreased stress hormones and increased anti-cancer proteins and natural killer cells of the immune system. They even gave the treatment a name. They call it “forest bathing.”

The body of knowledge linking nature to positive physical and mental health effects is large and growing steadily. So is our understanding of the negative effects of our increasing separation from nature. So the next time you’re stressed, overwhelmed or just need a dose of something to make you feel good, help yourself to some nature. Take as much and as often as you like. Share with others.

And don’t worry, there’s no risk of overdose.