Brain behaviour - Get out about

24th October 2008 at 01:00
Our contact with nature has a huge impact on our minds. It's a case of the greener the better, says Aric Sigman

In Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, "It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes . We condition the masses to hate the country . hence those electric shocks".

New research gives credence to Huxley's dire prophecy. However, the electric shocks weren't needed. Across the industrialised world, there has been a decline in children's contact with nature.

A 16-year study in the US recently found a 25 per cent drop in visits to the countryside in the past 20 years, and a similar picture emerged from the academics' research in Spain and Japan. A further study in 2007 of 1,000 pupils across England, commissioned by the Year of Food and Farming, found that one in five never visit the countryside and a further 17 per cent have only visited it once or twice.

Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic, the authors of the American study, pointed to "a fundamental shift away from an appreciation of nature - biophilia - to videophilia, the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media."

At the same time, however, more and more evidence is emerging that exposure to nature provides significant physical, behavioural and intellectual benefits for children that reach deep into the classroom. A growing number of scientists now believe that, for most of us, being exposed to greenery has general benefits for our ability to pay attention. Studies report "superior attentional functioning" and that "the effect of nature on inattention is robust".

A study published in The American Journal of Public Health found that exposing children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to outdoor greenery significantly reduced their symptoms.

The scientists evaluated the effects of 49 after-school or weekend activities conducted in green outdoor settings versus those conducted in built outdoor and indoor settings.

The results were impressive and the effect was consistent across age, gender, socioeconomic status, type of community, geographic region and ADHD diagnosis: the greener the setting, the greater the relief from symptoms.

In a new study by the same team, Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor of the University of Illinois, children between seven and 12 with ADHD were taken on 20-minute walks in one of three environments - a city park and two other well-kept urban settings.

The results were extraordinary: "Effect sizes were substantial and comparable to those reported for recent formulations of methylphenidate (Ritalin). Conclusion: 20 minutes in a park setting was sufficient to elevate attention performance relative to the same amount of time in other settings."

The researchers also pointed to research conducted among people without ADHD, showing that inattention and impulsivity are reduced after exposure to green natural views and settings.

One of the most influential longitudinal studies, from Cornell University, found that children who experienced the biggest increase in green space near their home after moving improved their cognitive functioning - especially the ability to focus their attention - more than those who moved to areas with fewer natural resources nearby (Wells, 2000).

Similarly, in a study of 337 school-age children, researchers found that, even in rural areas, the presence of nearby nature - number of indoor plants, amount of nature seen in window views, a garden of grass rather than concrete - bolsters a child's resilience to stress and adversity, particularly among those children who experience a high level of stress (Wells amp; Evans, 2003).

Kuo and Taylor believe that "views of green help girls foster life success". In a study published in 2001, they randomly assigned 169 inner- city girls and boys to 12 architecturally identical high-rise buildings with varying levels of nearby greenery in view. (As boys spent less time at home and played elsewhere, the results did not apply to them.)

The researchers found that the greener and more natural a girl's view from home, the better she scores on tests of concentration, impulse inhibition and delayed gratification.

They see this as happening through an improvement in "self-discipline - a predictor of delinquency, drug abuse, poor school grades, teenage pregnancy". Self-discipline requires your attention. So when your attentional system becomes tired your self-discipline declines.

But how can something as mundane as a tree or some grass exert any biological effects on people? While the information-processing demands, multi-tasking and electronic distractions of everyday life cause attentional fatigue, it seems that greenery provides "attentional restoration".

As Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard University biologist, explained when he introduced his theory of biophilia in the early Eighties, humans are hard- wired to gravitate toward greenery.

Our ancestors who sought green areas or lived as subsistence hunters, gatherers and farmers were more likely to eat, drink and survive. Today, many of the benefits associated with our exposure to greenery may be part of an evolutionary reward system reinforcing the very thing that kept us alive for hundreds of thousands of years.

To create a Braver New World, all of the researchers above recommend more outdoor play time, greener playgrounds, more plants in schools, school gardening and school trips to the countryside.

Dr Aric Sigman is a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and author of Remotely Controlled.


Pergams, O. R. W., amp; Zaradic, P. A. (2008) Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105:7, 2295-2300

The Year of Food and Farming Surveys, from July and August 2007, can be found at

Taylor, A. F., amp; Kuo, F. E. (2008) Children with Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park, Journal of Attention Disorders, 2008 Aug 25 (publishing online ahead of print)

Wells, N. M. (2000) At Home With Nature: Effects of "greenness" on children's cognitive functioning, Environment and Behavior, 32:6, 775- 795

Wells, N. M. amp; Evans, G. W. (2003) Nearby Nature: A buffer of life stress among rural children, Environment and Behavior, 35:3, 311-330.

The UK government-funded Growing Schools initiative supports teachers in using the "outdoor classroom" as a resource across the curriculum for pupils of all ages.

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