Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals
Marc G. Bermana,b,⁎, Ethan Krossb, Katherine M. Krpanb, Mary K. Askrenb, Aleah Bursonb,
Patricia J. Deldinb, Stephen Kaplanb, Lindsey Sherdellc, Ian H. Gotlibc, John Jonidesb
aRotman Research Institute at Baycrest, Canada
bUniversity of Michigan, United States
cStanford University, United States
a r t i c l e i n f oa b s t r a c t
Received 17 January 2012
Received in revised form 7 February 2012
Accepted 6 March 2012
Available online 31 March 2012
Background: This study aimed to explore whether walking in nature may be beneficial for in-
dividuals with major depressive disorder (MDD). Healthy adults demonstrate significant cog-
nitive gains after nature walks, but it was unclear whether those same benefits would be
achieved in a depressed sample as walking alone in nature might induce rumination, thereby
worsening memory and mood.
Methods: Twenty individuals diagnosed with MDD participated in this study. At baseline, mood
and short term memory span were assessed using the PANAS and the backwards digit span
(BDS) task, respectively. Participants were then asked to think about an unresolved negative
autobiographical event to prime rumination, prior to taking a 50-min walk in either a natural
or urban setting. After the walk, mood and short-term memory span were reassessed. The fol-
lowing week, participants returned to the lab and repeated the entire procedure, but walked in
the location not visited in the first session (i.e., a counterbalanced within-subjects design).
Results: Participants exhibited significant increases in memory span after the nature walk rel-
ative to the urban walk, pb.001, ηp
creases in mood, but the mood effects did not correlate with the memory effects, suggesting
separable mechanisms and replicating previous work.
Limitations: Sample size and participants' motivation.
Conclusions: These findings extend earlier work demonstrating the cognitive and affective ben-
efits of interacting with nature to individuals with MDD. Therefore, interacting with nature
may be useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments for MDD.
2=.53 (a large effect-size). Participants also showed in-
© 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Major depressive disorder
Major depressive disorder (MDD) is characterized by cog-
nitive impairments such as compromised working memory
(Lyubomirsky et al., 2003), and by affective impairments
such as persistent negative mood (Nolen-Hoeksema et al.,
2008). Prior research indicates that interacting with nature
enhances cognitive functioning (Berman et al., 2008;
Cimprich and Ronis, 2003; Kaplan and Berman, 2010; Taylor
and Kuo, 2009) and specifically increases working-memory
span and improves mood (Berman et al., 2008).
Kaplan and colleagues (Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan and Berman,
2010)have proposedAttentionRestorationTheory(ART) toex-
plain how interacting with nature improves cognitive abilities.
tention is captured by salient stimuli, and voluntary or directed
attention, in which attention is directed by cognitive-control
processes. This distinction, first proposed by William James
Journal of Affective Disorders 140 (2012) 300–305
⁎ Corresponding author at: Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, 3560
Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON, Canada M6A 2E1. Tel.: +1 416 785 2500x3362.
E-mail addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org,
email@example.com (M.G. Berman).
0165-0327/$ – see front matter © 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect
Journal of Affective Disorders
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/jad
(James, 1892), has been validated by behavioral and neurosci-
ence research (Buschman and Miller, 2007; Corbetta and
Shulman, 2002; Fan et al., 2002). ART identifies directed atten-
tion as the cognitive mechanism that is restored by interacting
Rothbart, 2007), including short-term memory performance
(Jonides et al., 2008).
According to ART, interacting with environments that
contain inherently fascinating stimuli (e.g., sunsets) modest-
ly invoke involuntary attention, allowing directed-attention
mechanisms a chance to replenish (Berman et al., 2008;
Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan and Berman, 2010). That is, the require-
ment for directed attention in such environments is mini-
mized, and attention is captured in a bottom-up fashion by
features of the environment itself. Thus, following an interac-
tion with natural environments, individuals perform better
on tasks that depend on directed-attention abilities. Unlike
natural environments, urban environments contain bottom-
up stimulation (e.g., car horns) that capture attention dra-
matically, requiring directed attention to overcome that
stimulation (e.g., avoiding traffic, ignoring advertising, etc.),
making urban environments less restorative.
Although interacting with natural environments has
been found to be beneficial for healthy individuals, it's
not clear whether these benefits would generalize to indi-
viduals with MDD. On one hand, to the extent that inter-
acting with natural environments (e.g., parks) replenish
cognitive resources (Berman et al., 2008; Kaplan and
Berman, 2010), individuals with MDD may show the
same or even greater cognitive gains than those demon-
strated by healthy individuals. It has been hypothesized
that individuals who are more attentionally fatigued may
obtain greater benefits from interacting with nature
(Kaplan and Berman, 2010), and fatigued participants
have been found to gain greater benefits from other
types of interventions (Masicampo
2008). Given that individuals with depression are likely
more mentally/attentionally fatigued than are nonde-
pressed individuals due to their depressive symptoms
(e.g. ruminations, psychomotor problems, etc.), it is possi-
ble that individuals with depression may show increased
cognitive and affective gains from a nature interaction.
On the other hand, individuals with depression are charac-
terized by high levels of rumination (Nolen-Hoeksema et al.,
2008). Rumination maintains and exacerbates negative mood,
(Berman et al., 2011; Joormann and Gotlib, 2008; Landro et al.,
2001), and may be particularly pronounced during time spent
alone. Thus, asking a person with MDD to go for a solitary
walk in a park mayactuallyworsen, ratherthanimprove,mem-
ory and mood by potentially taxing top-down/directed atten-
et al., 2005), and alternative treatments such as mindfulness
ple, portable and cost-effective interventions for mood and anx-
iety disorders. This study is a first attempt to discover if
1.1. The current research
This study was designed to examine whether interacting
with nature has beneficial effects on memory performance
and affect in individuals diagnosed with MDD. Specifically,
we examined whether interacting with nature could improve
the typically impaired short-term memory/working memory
performance in MDD (Berman et al., 2011; Joormann et al.,
2010; Landro et al., 2001). We also examined whether
mood would change differentially after a walk in nature vs.
a walk in an urban environment, as well as the relation be-
tween mood and memory effects. Improvements in mood
would be of particular interest given that MDD is character-
ized by low levels of positive affect (Watson and Naragon-
A conservative task was employed to examine whether
interacting with nature was beneficial for individuals with
MDD by asking participants to reflect on an intense negative
experience prior to going on their walks. In this way, we set
the stage for an exposure to nature to maximize its impact
on individuals with depression who were primed with nega-
tive thoughts and feelings.
Twenty individuals diagnosed with MDD (12 female,
8 male, mean age=26) participated in this study. A diagnosis
of MDD was made by clinicians who administered the Struc-
tured Clinical Interview (SCID) for DSM-IV (First and Gibbon,
1996). Participants were recruited from the University of
Michigan and the greater Ann Arbor area through ads on
Craigslist and Facebook, as well as fliers that were distributed
around the University of Michigan campus and stores/shops
in the greater Ann Arbor area. These ads asked participants
if they were feeling sad, down or depressed and if they
were interested in participating in research to e-mail our lab.
Participants were included if they met criteria for current
MDD as determined by the SCID. All participants were run in
the experimental sessions within two weeks of their SCID.
The Beck Depression Inventory (BDI-II) (Beck et al., 1996)
was also administered (M=30.1, SD=10.8). BDI scores of
20–28 indicate moderate depression, while scores of 29–65
indicate severe depression; thus our sample is in the moder-
ate to severe range. Twelve participants had comorbid diag-
noses (e.g., bulimia) and six were known to be on
medication for depression. Participants gave informed con-
sent as administered by the Institutional Review Board of
the University of Michigan and were compensated $20/h.
Each session lasted 3 h. One participant was removed for
completing only the first session, leaving 19 participants
with complete data.
We first assessed participants' mood with the Positive and
Negative Affect Schedule (Watson et al., 1988), which yields
separate scores for positive and negative affect. Then partici-
pants performed the backward digit span (BDS) task, in
which digits were presented auditorily at a pace of 1 digit
M.G. Berman et al. / Journal of Affective Disorders 140 (2012) 300–305
per second and were repeated aloud by the participant. Next,
we primed participants to ruminate by instructing them to
analyze their feelings surrounding an intense, unresolved
negative autobiographical experience; a procedure used by
others (Kross and Ayduk, 2008; Rusting and Nolen-
Hoeksema, 1998). This was done to initiate rumination in
participants to explore if nature walks remediate cognitive
and affective difficulties in individuals with depression who
were distressed. Finally, we reassessed participants' mood.
Participants were then randomly assigned to take a 50- to
55-min walk in the Ann Arbor Arboretum (a park near cam-
pus) or in downtown Ann Arbor. The walks were predefined
for participants and equated in total length (2.8 miles). Each
participant was given a map displaying the path of each
walk and wore a GPS watch to ensure compliance. The arbo-
retum walk was tree-lined and secluded from traffic and peo-
ple. The downtown walk was largely on traffic-heavy streets
lined with university and office buildings. The walks were
identical to those used in prior research, which has documen-
ted an effect of interacting with nature versus urban environ-
ments on cognitive functioning (Berman et al., 2008).
Upon their return, participants again completed the
PANAS and BDS task. Participants' walk GPS data were then
analyzed and superimposed on a satellite image to ensure
that they walked in the specified locations. Fig. 1 shows a sat-
ellite image of the two walks from participant GPS data.
At the conclusion of the session participants were asked
to respond on a scale of 0–2 (0 = no; 1 = sort-of; 2 = yes)
if they thought about the memory that they generated. This
scale indexed the extent to which participants perseverated
during their walk about the negative autobiographical mem-
ory. While not a direct measure of rumination, responses to
this question provided some indication of what participants
were thinking about on their walks. One week later, partici-
pants returned to the lab and repeated the entire procedure,
walking in the location that was not visited in the first ses-
sion. The order of walking in nature versus an urban setting
was counterbalanced across participants.
2.3. Analysis parameters
A 2 (Time: pre-walk vs. post-walk)×2 (Location: nature
vs. urban) analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted
separately on scores from the BDS task and the PANAS.
Post-hoc t-tests were conducted to follow up significant
3.1. Working memory capacity
The two-way ANOVA on BDS scores yielded no main effects
of location or time (Fsb3.39, ps>.08), but did yield a significant
time×locationinteraction, F(1, 18)=20.5, pb.001, ηp
dicating that participants' memory capacity increased more
after the nature walk than after the urban walk. Indeed, the
size of this effect was nearly 5 times larger than that found in
our previous work (ηp
(Berman et al., 2008). This interaction was driven by reliable in-
creases in BDS task performance after the nature walk, t(18)=
3.67, pb.005, and a trend toward decreases in BDS task perfor-
mance after the urban walk, t(18)=−1.91, p=.07 (see
Table 1). Moreover, although there were no differences in pre-
nature and pre-urban BDS task performance, t(18)=1.804,
n.s. (i.e., no baseline differences in BDS performance), one par-
ticipant did have a pre-nature BDS score that was nearly two
standard deviations below the sample mean. Even after remov-
ing that participant, the same effects of greater increases in BDS
task performance after the nature walk than after the urban
walk were found, F(1, 17)=17.88, pb.001, ηp
2=.14) with a non-clinical sample
As a manipulation check the mood induction was success-
ful: positive affect (PA) was significantly reduced, and nega-
tive affect (NA) significantly increased after the participants
reflected on their negative memories prior to their walks
(psb.05; see Table 1).
3.2.1. Positive affect
A2×2ANOVA yielded a significant effect of location (nature
vs. urban), F(1,161)=16.85, pb.001, but no significant effect of
time (pre-walk vs. post-walk), F(1,16)=2.04, n.s. Of most
Fig. 1. Satellite images of the nature and urban walks obtained from participants' GPS data. The nature walk is in green, and the urban walk in red. The nature walk
shows data from two participants.
12 participants had missing mood data post-nature walk.
M.G. Berman et al. / Journal of Affective Disorders 140 (2012) 300–305
interest was the interaction — PA improved to a greater extent
after the nature walk than the urban walk, as indicated by a sig-
nificant interaction between location and time, F(1,16)=6.62,
of location was driven by greater PA after the nature walk,
t(16)=2.30, pb.05, as no baseline differences in PA were
found pre-nature vs. pre-urban, t(18)=.393, n.s. PA, however,
did improve significantly after each walk: nature, t(16)=4.31,
pb.001; urban, t(18)=3.67, pb.005 (see Table 1). Changes in
PA did not correlate with changes in BDS performance after ei-
ther walk (ps>.19), suggesting that the observed improve-
ments in memory were not driven by mood, and that separate
mechanisms may underlie the cognitive and affective effects of
interacting with nature.
2=.29. Follow-up tests showed that the main effect
3.2.2. Negative affect
Results from the 2×2 ANOVA yielded no significant effect of
location, F(1,16)=2.75, n.s., but did yield a significant main ef-
fect of time, F(1,16)=16.43, pb.001. Contrary to the results
for PA, NA did not decrease more for the nature walk than for
theurban walk,F(1,15)=.13, n.s., but decreases inNAwereob-
served after both the nature walk t(16)=4.34, pb.001 and the
urban walk, t(18)=3.72, pb.005. Changes in NA also did not
correlate with changes in BDS performance after either walk
Walk order (nature first or urban first) was not a signifi-
cant predictor for any mood or memory analysis when it
was included as a between-subjects factor in the ANOVAs.
Comorbid diagnosis was not a significant predictor for any
memory analysis or any analysis of negative affect.
3.4. Thoughts during the walks
There was no difference in participants' reports of think-
ing about their generated negative memory on the nature
(M=1.16; SD=.60) or the urban (M=1.21; SD=.42)
walk, t(18)=.37, p>.72, indicating that most participants
thought about their negative autobiographical memory to
some (and the same) degree on both walks. Finally, there
were no significant correlations between thinking about the
negative memory and changes in BDS task performance or
mood scores for either walk (ps>.13).
Working-memory capacity and positive affect improved
to a greater extent after the nature walk relative to the
urban walk. Interestingly, these effects were not correlated,
thought about their negative autobiographical memories to
an equal extent on both walks, therefore avoiding thinking
about their negative memory was not a driving mechanism
for the nature effects.
This study examined whether interactingwithnaturehas
beneficial effects on cognitive and affective functioning in
MDD. Wefound that individuals diagnosed withMDD exhib-
ited cognitive and affective improvements after walking in a
nature setting. These effects were observed even though
participants were instructed prior to their walks to think
about a painful negative experience, which has been shown
to prime rumination (Kross and Ayduk, 2008), which in
turn has been shown to disrupt working memory (Berman
et al., 2011).
These findings suggest that interacting with nature, even
in the context of thinking about a painful memory, is benefi-
cial for people suffering from MDD. Moreover, the effect sizes
we observed for individuals with MDD in this study were
nearly five times as large as the effect sizes observed in an-
other study with healthy individuals (Berman et al., 2008),
suggesting that individuals with depression benefit even
more from such interactions. Prior to this study it was not
clear whether interacting with nature would harm or help
those with MDD, especially given the negative mood induc-
tion prior to the walk. The fact that the nature walk was ben-
eficial even while participants were thinking of a negative
autobiographical memory suggests that the walk could be
beneficial even in the midst of heightened ruminative pro-
cesses. Importantly, the memory improvements we observed
were not driven by changes in affect, replicating previous
work (Berman et al., 2008). Both positive and negative affect
benefited after both walks, but only positive affect changed
differentially for the nature walk compared to the urban
walk. Increasing positive affect is important given that MDD
is characterized by low levels of positive affect (Watson and
Some theories claim that increases in positive affect should
lead to improvements in working-memory performance either
by increasing dopamine levels (Ashby et al., 1999) or by broad-
other researchers have found poorer cognitive-control in posi-
tive mood states (Oaksford et al., 1996), while still other inves-
tigators have found selective effects depending on task
demands and stimuli (Gray, 2001; Phillips et al., 2002). For ex-
ample, Phillips et al. (2002) suggest that induced positive
moods improve performance on tasks that demand creativity
gaged more creative processes such as a verbal fluency task, we
Means and standard deviations in parentheses for BDS and mood measures.
The second set of BDS measures are when one participant was removed for
having a low BDS score before the nature walk that was nearly two standard
deviations below the sample mean.
BDS (1 participant
M.G. Berman et al. / Journal of Affective Disorders 140 (2012) 300–305
would have found a relation with our mood effects. While our
data cannot rule out the possibility that affective and cognitive
improvements are not related in all cases, the fact that memory
and mood were unrelated in our study suggests that the cogni-
cesses beyond simply increasing positive affect.
Having demonstrated the salutary effects of nature, it is
important to consider the potential mechanisms at play,
which could help to refine the intervention more effectively.
Although the present study does not allow us to examine
this directly, according to ART, interacting with nature acti-
vates involuntary attention modestly, allowing replenish-
ment of directed-attentional mechanisms (Berman et al.,
2008; Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan and Berman, 2010). Berman et
al. (2008) showed this effect most directly in demonstrating
that only cognitive tasks that had an executive component
improved after a nature interaction. There are, of course,
other potential mechanisms that could underlie the benefi-
cial effects of nature. For example, the effects could be driven
by stress reduction (Ulrich et al., 1991) or by other physio-
logical changes. Future research is needed to examine the
role that these processes play in mediating the observed
Interestingly, there were no differences in what partic-
ipants reported thinking about on the two walks. There-
fore, it was not the case that participants thought about
their negative experiences more on the urban walk than
on the nature walk. There are at least two interpretations
of this finding. First, the effects of nature on memory and
positive affect may be independent of what participants
think about during the walk. Alternatively, recent studies
have demonstrated that people can reflect upon negative
experiences either adaptively or maladaptively (Aldao
and Nolen-Hoeksema, 2010; Kross and Ayduk, 2011).
Thus, although participants reported thinking about their
negative experience to the same degree on both walks, it
is possible that they thought about it more adaptively
when walking in nature versus an urban environment,
which may in turn have given rise to the mood and mem-
ory effects we observed.
In closing we should note that a limitation of our study is
our relatively small sample size (19 participants). However,
there are a few aspects of our design that mitigate concerns
regarding sample size. First, our effect sizes were large. Sec-
ond, our design was a within-subjects design, which helps to
alleviate concerns regarding power and is a replication of
previous work that used healthy participants (Berman et
al., 2008). Third, the sample size of this study matches that
of other similar types of studies (Amir et al., 2009;
Bismuth-Evenzal et al., 2012; Maalouf et al., 2011). Lastly,
given our current effect size, we would need a sample of
only 10 participants (half our current sample size) to have
sufficient power to detect a significant interaction (i.e.,
power above .8), and our observed power to detect differ-
ences given or current sample size is .98, well above the .8
Despite the strengths of our design and the large effect
sizes, it is difficult to rule out some alternative explanations.
For example, we found no correlation between the mood ef-
fects and the cognitive effects. Although it is possible that
this lack of a significant correlation is due to the small sam-
ple size in the present study, it is important to note that
Berman et al. (2008) also reported no correlation between
mood and cognitive effects with a sample size twice that
of the current study. To rule out affective mechanisms,
experiments that manipulate both mood and environmen-
tal setting are required. Future experiments should also
include not only subjective measures of mood, but also
physiological measures that may show relations to the cog-
nitive effects even in the absence of relations to subjective
mood measures. Finally, we did not have direct measures
of adaptive versus maladaptive self-reflection during the
walks. Thus, as noted earlier, we do not know whether na-
ture influences the type of self-reflective process in which
Lastly, while all of our participants met criteria for depres-
sion as determined by the SCID, our participants were moti-
vated enough to participate in a research study that
involved mild physical activity, and not all participants with
depression may have that same motivation. Therefore, an im-
portant challenge concerns how to motivate participants
with depression to take nature walks given the motivational
deficits that they suffer from. Although it is possible that
the positive emotional and cognitive rewards may propel
them to continue walking in nature in the future, additional
work is needed both to motivate a broader range of partici-
pants to walk in nature and to develop methods to encourage
participants to continue to walk in nature. We did not expe-
rience difficulties convincing participants in our study to
walk in either location. These limitations notwithstanding,
this study is an important first step in exploring the potential
therapeutic benefit of interacting with nature for individuals
Researchers have recently called for the development and
exploration of brief, simple and portable interventions to
treat mood disorders that can be widely disseminated at
low-costs (Kazdin and Blase, 2011). The current research
fits these aims well. Interacting with nature is, for the most
part, widely accessible, simple and affordable. Yet we know
virtually nothing about how this process affects mood and
cognition in MDD. Although the current findings begin to ad-
dress this issue, they also highlight important questions for
future research. For example, how long-lasting are the effects
of interacting with nature? Do individual differences (e.g.,
urban vs. rural dwellers) moderate their effects? How can
we motivate participants with MDD to take these walks
more often? Can interacting with nature provide an impor-
tant supplement to existing empirically validated forms of
treatment for MDD? Addressing these questions is important
for refining knowledge concerning how interacting with na-
ture influences depression.
These results are timely, as studies have indicated that
urban living may adversely affect psychological functioning
(Lederbogen et al., 2011) and increase psychopathology
(Krabbendam and van Os, 2005; Pedersen and Mortensen,
2001; Peen et al., 2010; van Os et al., 2010). These results
M.G. Berman et al. / Journal of Affective Disorders 140 (2012) 300–305
suggest that incorporating nearby nature into urban environ-
ments may counteract some of these adverse effects. Future
research may examine whether nature interactions can supple-
ment and enhance existing treatments for MDD and other psy-
chopathologies to improve well-being.
Role of funding source
This work was supported by in part by NIMH grant MH60655 to John
Jonides and a TKF Foundation Planning Grant to Marc Berman. The grants
helped to pay for the post-doctoral fellow's stipend (Marc G. Berman), re-
search assistants' hourly wages, participant payments, color figure publish-
ing costs and experimental equipment.
Conflict of interest statement
The authors' have no conflicts of interest to report.
This work was supported in part by NIMH grant MH60655 to JJ and by a
TKF Foundation planning grant to MGB. We thank Alexa Erickson and Cath-
erine Cherny for data collection; Phil Cheng and Hyang Sook Kim for diag-
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