Have trouble concentrating? Try a little nature!

Petra McDougall
12 February 2015

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/MerggyR

Today, most youth grow up in urban settings that differ greatly from the more natural ones many of their grandparents knew as children. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban environments and the United Nations predicts the proportion of city-dwellers will rise to two-thirds by 2050.

Did you know? In 1960, only 30% of the global population lived in cities. By 2050, this figure is expected to be almost 70%.

As people around the world have moved from the countryside to the city, there has also been a significant increase in mental health problems. In Canada, depression is expected to become the second leading cause of disability by 2020. Diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been on the rise since the 1990s and anxiety has become the most common mental illness in the country.

Health benefits of nature

It is important to remember that correlation does not equal causation: just because mental health problems have increased as more people move to the city, that does not necessarily mean that urban environments cause mental illness (or vice versa). However, research has shown that spending time in natural or “green” environments may reduce many symptoms of mental illness and improve the psychological well-being of healthy individuals. This body of research typically defines nature as “physical features or processes of non-human origin” such as plants, animals, running water, and undeveloped riverbanks.

For example, studies have shown that when children diagnosed with ADHD regularly play in natural green spaces, such as in the woods, their symptoms become milder than those of children with ADHD who regularly play on built structures, such as playgrounds or paved surfaces. A long-term study of adults correlated improvements in mental health with moving to a home located in a greener community. Furthermore, stress levels (as determined by hormones found in saliva) were found to be lower in people who live in greener communities, suggesting a positive physiological response to natural environments.

Did you know? A 25 minute walk in a natural environment can reduce frustration and increase your ability to concentrate.

In fact, natural areas benefit everyone, not just certain age groups or people diagnosed with a particular mental health disorder. Recent research suggests that a simple 25 minute walk in a green area, or even a tree-filled plaza, can significantly relieve concentration problems and brain fatigue.

Directed vs. involuntary attention

Why is time spent in natural settings so good for you? One hypothesis is that nature restores your ability to concentrate by drawing on involuntary attention, as opposed to directed attention.

As its name suggests, directed attention is the type of concentration you use when trying to focus on the task at hand, such as reading from a textbook, working through a math problem, or writing a term paper. Directed attention leads to fatigue because it requires you to block out competing stimuli—those interesting things that distract you and cause your mind to wander.

Did you know? Symptoms of ADHD in children and youth are significantly reduced when they are given daily access to natural areas.

Natural surroundings invoke a type of involuntary attention—often referred to as “soft fascination”—which occurs when objects in your environment naturally grab your attention. Soft fascination appears to be correlated with reduced engagement and arousal, lower levels of frustration, and increased meditation. It is very different from the attention-grabbing (and often emotionally arousing) appeal of smartphones, social media, and television programming. In other words, natural environments help replenish your limited stores of attention.

In fact, it seems you don’t even have to go outside to benefit from natural environments. Office workers who have a window view of a green space experience higher job satisfaction, less frustration, and higher productivity than those without. Schoolchildren tend to score better on tests of concentration and are better able to control their impulses when they have natural views. Creativity and innovation have also been shown to increase along with exposure to nature.

So if your brain is feeling fatigued, a date with nature might be exactly what you need to feel replenished. Safe, free, and often readily accessible—going green is good for you!

Learn more!

Resources freely available online:

Urban population growth (2015)
Global Health Observatory, World Health Organization

General statistics on the growth of urban populations worldwide, with links to additional information:

Longitudinal effects on mental health of moving to greener and less green urban areas (2014)
I. Alcock, M. P. White, B. W. Wheeler, L. E. Fleming & M. H. Depledge, Environmental Science & Technology, 48(2), 1247-1255.

Article discussing long-term improvements in mental health associated with moving to greener urban areas:

Green space and stress: evidence from cortisol measures in deprived urban communities (2013)
J. J. Roe, C. W. Thompson, P. A. Aspinall, M. J. Brewer, E. I. Duff, D. Miller D & A. Clow, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 10(9), 4086-4103.

Easing brain fatigue with a walk in the park (2013)
Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times

Urban population growth (2015)
Global Health Observatory, World Health Organization

Report on research into the capacity for natural environments to ease brain fatigue.

Facts: Mental Illness and Addiction in Canada (2009)
Mood Disorders Society of Canada

Extensive collection of facts related to mental illness in Canada and worldwide, including information on individual disorders.

Population Challenges and Development Goals (2005)
UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs

Overview of demographic trends worldwide and a discussion of their implications for international development.

Other resources

P. Aspinall, P.Mavros, R. Coyne, R. & J. Roe. (2013). The urban brain: analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG. British journal of sports medicine 49, 272-276.

Article on research into the emotional impact of spending time in different types of environments and showing evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher meditation in green spaces. An abstract is available on the journal’s website. A subscription is required to view the full text.

A. Taylor & F. Kuo. (2011). Could exposure to everyday green space help treat ADHD? Evidence from Children’s play settings. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being; 3(3), 281-303.

Article discussing how regular exposure to nature may reduce the severity of symptoms in children with ADHD. An abstract is available on the publisher’s website. A subscription is required to view the full text.

A. F. Taylor, F. E. Kuo & W. C. Sullivan. (2002). Views of nature and self-discipline: Evidence from inner city children. Journal of environmental psychology, 22(1), 49-63.

Article discussing improved self-discipline observed among girls who had green space immediately surrounding their homes. An abstract is available on the publisher’s website. A subscription is required to view the full text.

Petra McDougall

I became interested in science and nature as a young child exploring BC's coastline.  My summers were spent playing in the woods and on the beach; collecting snails, crabs, and interesting rocks.  

My fascination with the natural world led me to volunteer on a baboon project in South Africa for 8 months during my BSc.  I later returned to Africa to work with vervet monkeys for a Master's degree, and am now working with bighorn sheep in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta for my PhD.  
I spend my weekends immersed in nature with my 3 young children - identifying bugs, building campfires, riding horses, and exploring the amazing world around us!

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