Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Looking at nature

Most of the pictures on this blog are of canals and trees, in other words natural surroundings (even if canals are man made). It is the way I think of my runs - chugging along looking at trees and water, passing people who are outside to enjoy themselves. I think of my standard run as 1 hour along the canal but in reality less than half the time is spent on the towpath as I have to get there and it is 16 minutes away. But the streets on the way tend to pass in a blur and I think of them as a preamble (word chosen carefully to reflect my running speed) that has to be got through. It is a bit odd as it is all running and everything should be of equal value.

Now I find there might be a good reason for this: nature is better for your state of mind.

"Attention restoration theory" is the current rebranding of the idea that a walk in the woods can help refocus your thoughts. Think of the Romantics tramping the Lake District or Thoreau at Walden and know the idea has been around for a long time but to be contemporary it has to have a three letter acronym so it is now ART. ART hypothesises that nature engages our attention and our sense of beauty in a way that places no load on the prefrontal cortex. In other words the mind can freewheel and give our directed-attention faculties a chance to recuperate. In contrast a walk in an urban environment is full of stimuli that require immediate attention and is therefore not so restful.

Last year this was tested in an experiment at the University of Michigan. A group of people were given some backwards number tasks that required a deal of concentration. After the first session they took an hour walk either in an arboretum or along the streets of Ann Arbor, after which they took more tests. Whilst everyone's scores improved those of the nature walkers improved significantly more than those who had gone downtown. A second experiment cut the walking, instead the participants looked at pictures of either nature or urban scenes in their break. Again those who had looked at the nature scenes improved more.

So there you have it. If you want your run to have the maximum restorative effect you should search out routes containing natural beauty. Any run is obviously good but some places just make you feel that little bit better.

Scientifically proved!


beanz said...

I'd second that - I can walk to work down the road or across the leavy campus - which makes a better start to the day?

Anonymous said...

I found this such an interesting post, particularly that first point about how the mental experience of natural and urban surroundings is so different. I constantly still feel like a country head in the city. I grew up in a really rural place and now spend most of my time in an urban environment. After nearly a decade, I still find it hard to adjust. I feel I will never be "city minded", and sometimes miss that restful easy feeling of being around nature-it's hard to find in the big smoke.