New study finds that short-term memory is improved 20% by walking in nature, or even just by looking at an image of a natural scene. Marc G. Berman and colleagues at the University of Michigan wanted to test the effect of a walk's scenery on cognitive function (Berman, Jonides & Kaplan, 2008; PDF). These results replicated a previous study by Berto (2005) who found that just viewing pictures of natural scenes had a restorative effect on cognitive function.

What is it, then, about being immersed in real natural scenes that allows the mind to unwind?

Kaplan (1995) provides a nice explanation based on the idea that attention is split into two types: Involuntary attention and Directed attention. Natural scenes only engage our involuntary attention modestly: it's enough to stop us getting bored, but not so much we need to engage our directed attention to work out where to put our focus. Effectively gazing at the sunset gives our directed attention a rest and we can let our minds wander.

It would be interesting to test how other natural areas provide even greater benefits not only in memory but in perception, communication, executive function...

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