The Gift of Nature

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399px-Eaglecreek-28July2006.jpg Walking in a park in any season or even viewing pictures of nature helps improve memory and attention by 20 percent. All it takes is 30 minutes. Even when it’s cold. Even when we don’t enjoy it. The study by U of Michigan researchers found that effects of interacting with nature are similar to meditating.

Participants were sent on walking routes through urban streets as well as through a botanical garden and arboretum. The city strolls provided no memory boost but the parks improved short-term memory. Interestingly, the test subjects didn’t need to enjoy the walks. They received the same cognitive benefits when it was 80 degrees and sunny as when it was 25 degrees in winter.

Participants were also tested sitting inside and looking at pictures of either downtown scenes or nature scenes. The results were the same: about 20 percent improvement in memory and attention scores from looking at photos of nature.

The study appears in Psychological Science and dovetails with some of the researchers’ earlier work suggesting that people will be most satisfied with their lives when their environment supports three basic needs: the ability to understand and explore; the ability to make a difference; and ability to feel competent and effective.

Best holiday present? Take someone out into nature. Truly the gift that gives forever. Or at least for 20 percent longer.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones’ environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

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