When Marsha Jacobson, a business consultant, agreed to a gig that would last over a year, she was assigned an interior office — not a cubicle, but a room with no windows at all.
She was used to natural light during her workday, and she worried that the room would be dispiriting. So she pulled out her own nature photos from trips to Japan, Africa, and Vietnam, blew them up to poster size, found inexpensive frames, and filled up the walls.
To do our best work, we need to give our minds a rest periodically even during a workday. It turns out that natural environments — and even photos of nature — provide a particular kind of rest. Although once upon a time we’d have kept an eye out for a predator, today we relax the part of the mind that focuses on specifics — like that traffic light and oncoming car. But other areas stay engaged, in beneficial ways. As the authors explain in one key study, natural environments provide “softly fascinating stimulation that captures bottom–up involuntary attention mechanisms.”
This is especially important if you have trouble stopping repetitive worry. Psychologists call brooding “rumination,” the same word we use for cows chewing their cud over and over. You’re ruminating when you hash over the details of a cryptic email repeatedly without reaching insights. You may think you’re problem-solving, but too often you end up thinking, “What’s wrong with me?” Rumination is more common among women and may be why women are more prone to depression. Rumination also plays a role in anxiety, binge eating, and binge drinking, among other problems.
Rumination may be linked to more activity in a portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex — especially when you’re not engaged in a mental task.
A growing body of research, still with mixed results, has explored the idea that nature brings serenity. We do know that exercise adds to the benefit of natural surroundings. In one study, scientists gave volunteers tests of their attentiveness and mood before and after a 50-minute walk through a leafy area at Stanford, which maintains a huge campus. After their dose of greenery, the volunteers were less anxious and more focused. Another group took a walk beside a busy multi-lane highway in Palo Alto and didn’t emerge nearly as refreshed.
The same team followed up by scanning the brains of volunteers before and after a leafy walk, aiming this time to pin down its effect on rumination.
The team found that volunteers who took a 90-minute walk on quiet, tree-lined paths had less blood flow in the subgenual prefrontal cortex afterwards —- and also seemed happier in their answers on questionnaires. The results weren’t huge, but significant and better than the measurements among a group that walked along the highway.
For the sake of the study, the volunteers were instructed not to listen to music or bring friends. But of course if music or companionship helps your own mood, as it does for many, don’t hesitate.
Other research has found a link between living in a greener area and lower blood pressure. Greenery isn’t just good for people prone to anxiety, but makes most people feel good. One 2015 study based on data from Toronto concluded that “having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger. We also find that having 11 more trees in a city block, on average, decreases cardio-metabolic conditions in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $20,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $20,000 higher median income or being 1.4 years younger,” the authors write.
So should you move to get more of those trees? Maybe. A British study tracking around 600 people who moved to a greener area found that they were happier (according to answers on questionnaires) in each of the next three years post-move. A comparison group of people who moved to less green areas had a plunge in mood in the year preceding the mood but returned to baseline afterwards.
If you’re a ruminator, please don’t begin worrying about why you’re a ruminator. Instead, take a walk in the most natural setting nearby or look at nature photos. I personally made sure to live within a block of a park on a tree-lined street and keep a photo of an owl on my desktop.
August 11, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN