The Effect of Nature on Cognition

Being outside for recess is what students look forward to every school day. People say being outside is good for your health. They say connecting with nature is vital. But how important is it, and how does it improve health – especially your mind?

Every day, we are bombarded by the stress of a changing climate. Ocean degradation, toxic chemical release, increased pollution, extinction of species…and the list goes on. We feel the physical effects of environmental transformation all around us, even in our own backyards. But how does this affect our minds? Eco-psychology concludes that humans internalize these environmental changes because we have an innate connection to the environment around us. As a result, our cognitive processes can be affected, which, in turn, impacts students’ schoolwork! The environment can positively or negatively affect our minds, depending on whether the outside stimuli are good or bad.

Attention-restorative theory (A.R.T), formulated by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, is the theory that nature—as opposed to an urban setting—has restorative abilities and improves cognition. Nature has “soft fascinations,” like birds chirping or wind blowing, which are designed to improve focus memory. In contrast, an urban setting provides harsh stimuli (“hard fascinations”), such as watching T.V. or car horns, which are stressful and burdensome on our minds.

Skeptical? Marc Berman, a researcher in cognitive psychology and industrial engineering at the University of Michigan, conducted an experiment to test the restorative effects of nature on cognition. Berman had 38 students take a nearly 3-mile walk. Half of them walked in the Nichols Arboretum and the other half on a busy street. When they returned, he observed an enormous improvement in the nature walker’s cognition as opposed to the city-walker’s cognition.

Encouraging your students to connect with nature will restore their cognition and lead to success in school. So incorporate outside lessons or take a walk during class!