Your brain on greenery

A conversation with environmental psychologist Raymond De Young

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You go outside, you commune with nature. You feel good. That's familiar and simple enough that it hardly seems like a fruitful area for research. But in recent years, an entire field of environmental psychology has arisen in the efforts to tease out the relationship between nature outside of our heads and psychological and neurological processes inside. Proponents see this as integral to understanding how to heal ourselves – and perhaps the planet. 

These mental processes turn out to be subtle and nuanced. For instance, there's the matter of differentiating stress from mental fatigue. De-stressing is about getting away from the grind, visiting with a good friend, or watching the Tigers win a doubleheader. Mental restoration is different. It comes from a solo walk in the park, or time spent gardening. That was where we began a conversation with Raymond De Young, associate professor of environmental psychology and planning in the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. 

Metro Times: Words like "stress" and "tiredness" are part of our everyday vocabulary, but researchers in your field are working to make some distinctions. 

Raymond De Young: De-stressing might be compared to letting your car cool down after a long, hard ride. We can recover from stress by just taking time off work, getting a good night's sleep, or doing other physically relaxing things: going to a bar, talking with some friends, venting a little. 

But attentional fatigue needs a different kind of restoration. The mental fatigue we're talking about in our research, being tired in the head, is more like an empty gas tank. You've got to fill it up on a regular basis. We use up a part of our brain on a daily basis, and we have to restore it on a similar schedule. 

This need for regular restoration isn't a new idea. But somehow, our culture has gotten the wrong idea about how to go about doing it. We have led ourselves to think that vegging out in front of a TV, hanging out at the coffee shop or playing video games will restore our brains, but it doesn't. 


MT: Why not? 

De Young: We have to start by understanding what is fatiguing. The thing that runs down is a mental resource that directs our attention and allows us to focus on an important task while surrounded by a lot of distractions. We have to suppress these distractions in order to focus on the task at hand. Imagine you're at a meeting at a restaurant, and there is a lot of activity going on around you, but you need to focus on what the person you are meeting with is saying. To do this you have to suppress all of the background noise and movement, the conversations and music, waitstaff activity, even the meal in front of you. This suppression, inhibiting all of those competing pieces of information, is what we use our directed attention to do. 

But directed attention wears out. The resulting mental fatigue is not a bad thing, it's just the normal result of getting our work done. To remain effective we have to restore this mental resource. And the only way to restore directed attention is not to use it; let it rebuild through rest. 

If we don't restore it, a large number of things can go wrong, such as irritability and impulsivity that result in regrettable choices, impatience that has us making poor decisions, and distractibility that allows other people to have a large effect on our behavior. In short, mental fatigue reduces our ability to make and follow plans, and leads to an inability to mentally restrain impulsive thought or action.

A lot of the things that we imagine are restorative actually require us to continue using directed attention. Imagine you are going to a bar with a bunch of friends, you're having a great time, having conversations, enjoying some stories told. But if you're not careful, what you say you might easily hurt a friend's feelings, and if you say the wrong thing to the wrong person, you're in trouble. If you act too crazy they kick you out. So you still have to use your directed attention to manage your behavior. Another example of how we get things wrong is what we think "screen time" does to us. People think that while playing a video game they are vegging out and letting the brain recover. But, in fact, you are using directed attention to play the game.


MT: So if I walk down to Detroit's RiverWalk or some artificial wetland, once I'm there, the idea is then that I'm not going to be focusing on one thing, I'm going to let the whole thing envelop me. I'm not using my directed attention?

De Young: Exactly. And to understand how this works it helps to know that there's another kind of attention, called involuntary attention. It describes what happens when something catches our attention, engages our mind, without our effort. Loud noises certainly grab our attention, but nature, in a gentle way, also does that. The wind through the trees, the water flowing over the rocks, sunlight through the branches, an animal moving off in the distance, these things are aesthetically beautiful and capture our attention effortlessly. While our involuntary attention is engaged, our fatigued directed attention can restore itself. 

And it doesn't have to be pristine, gorgeous, picture-postcard-perfect nature. Research suggests that you need very little exposure to nature, just a few trees will do, a glimpse of the water, a small park or maybe time spent viewing someone's front yard garden. If you let yourself soak up this everyday nature even for just a short time, restoration can occur. 

But it's important to realize that you've got to let the environment capture your attention. If you go walking with a friend along the river but your conversation is the main focus, then nature, while all around, isn't able to help you. 

So if you walk with a friend in a place filled with everyday nature, then you should both go with the intention of trying to help each other focus on the environment. Was it Ram Dass who said, "Be here, now"? That concept of being in the moment, letting the environment wash over you is what we mean when we talk about nature as a restorative tonic. 


MT: That reminds me of two phrases I've come across. One is an "an environmental engagement plan" and also the idea of "walking mindfully."

De Young: The engagement plan idea is about not leaving things up to chance. It's like giving yourself some homework that focuses on the environment. Imagine you had a camera with only three pictures left on the roll of film. Now go take a walk of about 20 minutes focusing on the environment and deciding what you would take pictures of to describe the beauty of what you're seeing. Since you have only three photos left, you have to constantly focus and engage with the environment to select just the right scenes to photograph. Now there's some use of directed attention in this task because you're making judgments, you're discriminating. But most of the focus is on nature and that use of directed attention is an investment paying off in mental restoration. Other engagement plans involve asking people to imagine what they would change in the environment to make it more beautiful, or imagine what would happen if the environment had far fewer cars or if it had more people gardening in the front yards. Or look for things that would bring a smile to a child's face. You're trying to be playful with the environment. The purpose is to engage yourself toward the environment rather than toward your own thoughts or the rest of your day or any emotions you are feeling. 

Now mindfulness is interesting. There's a lot of research and controversy over whether or not you're supposed to be mindful or mindless. Are you supposed to focus on yourself or on the environment? 

If you go to a Buddhist temple and take a course on walking meditation, it would seem like what we're talking about in the engagement plans. You're outside, you're walking, and you're in a meditative state. But, a lot of the instructions are to turn inward and to feel the ground under you and to feel the wind against you and to feel your muscles working. So it's not focusing on nearby nature, it's focusing more on your own sensations and the muscular effects of being outdoors. In this sort of situation you're using your mind to do a body audit and you end up using directed attention.

But when walking meditation tells you to turn outward and look at the nature around you, then it's promoting a mentally restorative experience. And here we again are using a small amount of directed attention as an investment, engaging our involuntary attention and allowing for mental restoration. 


MT: Can you give me some examples of how you can measure these effects?

De Young: Well that's the key thing, measurements, as researchers that's what we spend a lot of our time on. There are some visual tests that we use, and we've also developed paper-and-pencil tests that measure our ability to focus attention. One of the tests is called digit-span backwards. Someone gives you a series of letters and your task is to recall them back to the person in reverse order. As we increase the length of the digits string, it gets harder and harder to do correctly. And it turns out that you can recall longer digit strings when your attention is restored than when you have directed attention fatigue. 

There's another measurement that uses a Necker Cube. It's a wire-frame cube, and if you look at it, it tends to flip back and forth, one side looks like it's in the front, then a moment later that side looks like it's in the back. If you use your directed attention you can slow down the rate of flipping, and some people can hold it frozen in one state for awhile. The amount of directed attention you have is related to how long you can hold the wire frame image from flipping. 

Another measurement uses a Stroop image. This is a list of color words, where each word is printed in a color of ink different than what the word represents. So the word "red" is printed in blue ink, and so on. The task is to quickly go through the list naming the color of the ink. We use directed attention to inhibit the word we see while naming the ink color. The more mentally fatigued we are the harder this task is to do, so our error rate is related to the state of our directed attention. But, interestingly, if the color words were spelled out in a language that we don't know, or the words were just nonsense syllables, then the task is easy to do.


MT: And then basically one group would walk down the city street and another group would walk through the arboretum and then test them after that? 

De Young: Exactly. We use the same length of walk with the same conditions, whether they're alone or walking with someone else, and roughly the same amount of difficulty walking. A nature walk, say walking down a tree-lined street produces a lot less mental fatigue, or produces more restoration, than a walk through a more urban area. 

What's fascinating is that we don't have to use large wilderness expanses or huge beautiful parks, not that those aren't also effective, but it turns out that for the restoration of mental vitality, we don't need anything quite as dramatic. I think that's hopeful; a lot of our cities just don't have access to wilderness areas or beautiful arboretums. 


MT: Some researchers in your field use the term "nature deficit disorder." 

De Young: Long ago people didn't have to use anywhere near the amount of directed attention that we do, they didn't have that many distractions, they didn't have as many electronic gadgets that are always interrupting or distracting them. Many people spent more of their day out in nature. Or, if most of their work was indoors, nature was right out their door. But today, a good deal of our work is spent indoors, with abstract concepts, lots of distractions, and lots of interruptions. And very few of us have an opportunity to literally turn around and look at nature. These days, we have to purposefully go out and find nature. 

We can add to this a second problem. Even aside from our work, people are spending more time indoors, whether it's watching television, playing games, e-mailing. 

We see this most dramatically in our children. Back 40-50 years, your parents would send you outside to play, telling you to come back home for lunch. Then you'd go out again and come back home for dinner. For some of us, our parents would never see us in between. These days the kids are kept very close. Perhaps for good reasons, but the result is that they're not getting the same dose of nature as kids got years ago. There's been a subtle and incremental decrease in our access to nature. The term we're using is "nature deficit disorder," which is about kids, of all ages, not getting adequate access to nature. Some people have speculated that this might explain why there's more anxiety among our children, perhaps a little more anger. 

MT: Is there a notion that if we improve our relationship with nature we'll be better shepherds of it?

De Young: Now you're jumping into what I'm currently working on. My belief is that burned-out people can't help heal the planet. If people are mentally fatigued, from their work or from trying to restore their directed attention in ways that don't work, then they're not going to be able to help themselves, their neighbors, their community or the environment.

A lot of what environmental conservation involves is restraint, it's not doing everything you want to do at the moment you want to do it. Think about something like saving energy or reducing emissions from cars. It involves planning your trips, coordinating with other people, thinking ahead. The very act of planning and scheduling a trip uses a lot of directed attention because you've got to think through and imagine the route you'll take, what stops need to be made, what needs to be done at each stop. And it turns out this kind of deep planning uses a lot of directed attention.

You can think about environmental stewardship as sustaining our relationship with nature. But it also involves social sustainability — maintaining the sustainability of the neighborhood, our relations to our family, our relations to one another. 

I think people, cultures and societies, already know this. We already know that taking time off at the end of the week is really good for our well-being. It makes for a better community and a whole lot better person. Mental restoration is probably essential for environmental stewardship, social stewardship, community building and everyday civility.

I try to get my students to internalize this idea that mental restoration is the key to their living a better life. And more down-to-earth, I tell them they're going to do much better on their late-term projects and final exams if, towards the end of the term, they continue to take time to take walks in the woods or spend time at a park. Some listen, but others say that at the end of the term is when they don't have time for such activities. They wish they could, they know they're supposed to do it, but they can't find the time. And my response is if you believe you don't have the time then you've flunked the class — that's exactly when you most need to take a walk. 


Raymond De Young is currently on sabbatical from the University of Michigan, among other things working with co-editor Thomas Princen, also professor in U-M's School of Natural Resources, on The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. The MIT press publication is slated for January 2012. A number of De Young's papers can be read at

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