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Measuring Cognition in Nature - Neural Effects from Prolonged Exposure to Nature

  • Northern Vermont University

Abstract and Figures

Previous research shows that exposure to natural environments can decrease stress and improve performance on tasks measuring attention. We used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure changes in neural activity before, during, and after prolonged exposure to nature. We found midline frontal theta (4-8hz) activity significantly decreased after exposure to a natural environment and increased as students returned to finals week. We also found posterior alpha (8 -12hz) activity decreased as participants spent time in nature and increased as participants returned to finals week. We expect that posterior alpha activity is related to rumination, and exposure to nature engages attention using bottom-up processing rather than top-down exertion. Our lab is continuing to measure neural changes from exposure to different complex environments with different populations.
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Rachel J Hopman, Emily E Scott, Spencer C Castro, Kristen Weissinger, and Dr. David L Strayer
Department of Psychology, University of Utah
Measuring Cognition in Nature Neural Effects from Prolonged Exposure to Nature
This work was sponsored by the University of Utah
Psychology Department and Cognition in the Wild.
Neural Mechanisms of
Electroencephalography (EEG) measures
changes in electrical activity at the scalp that
correlate with cognitive processes. The
midline frontal theta frequency (~4-8 Hz) is
positively correlated with cognitive control
and determines activation of the frontoparietal
Attentional Control Network (ACN). Posterior
alpha frequency (~8-12 Hz) correlates with
task-unrelated thoughts (mind wandering).
Hypothesis 1: Prolonged exposure to nature
will decrease attentional fatigue. Therefore,
power in the midline frontal theta frequency
will decrease as attention is restored.
Hypothesis 2: Natural environments allow
for soft fascination to occur, which can be
measured through mind wandering.
Therefore, power in posterior alpha frequency
will increase as attention is restored.
The Process of Cognitive Restoration
Prolonged exposure to nature shows significant decreased activity in
midline frontal theta frequency. Increased frontal theta activity reflects
engagement of voluntary attention and activation of the frontoparietal
Attentional Control Network (ACN). Down-regulation of the ACN allow for
focused attention to rest and restoration to occur.
Posterior alpha activity also significantly decreases from exposure to
nature. Decreased posterior alpha activity reflects engagement of attention.
Although more research is necessary, we predict that soft fascination engages
involuntary attention, distinct in neural underpinnings from mind wandering.
Limitations and Future Directions
Post-trip testing took place during finals week, and therefore
students were under increased stress post-trip. During testing, the ACN was reengaged as
students returned to an environment that required attentional focus for extended periods of time.
Future research will continue measuring cognitive restoration using various
populations in natural environments. Specifically, additional research is needed to
determine the time course of restoration and the components of natural environments
that allow for restoration to occur.
Restoration in Nature
Nature utilizes involuntary attention and
provides an environment compatible for the
restoration of cognition and attention.
Four principles of Attention Restoration Theory
Soft Fascination ∙ Extent Compatibility Being Away
Research reports benefits in cognitive
performance, mood, stress responses, and
well-being from exposure to nature.
Measuring Restoration
Recruitment: 26 participants from a psychology class at
the U of Utah volunteered for 3 hour-long appointments.
Previous research from other studies also shows
changes from exposure to natural environments.
Increased executive attention (Operation Span)
Increased creativity (Remote Associates Task)
Increase in positive mood (PANAS)
Increase in well-being (Satisfaction With Life Scale)
Increase in subjective alertness
Increased appreciation for nature (Restoration Scale)
Atchley, R.A., Strayer, D.L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in
the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion
in natural settings. PLOSone, 7(12), e51474, 1-12.
Buckner, R. L., Andrews-Hanna, J. R., & Schacter, D. L.
(2008). The Brain's Default Network. Annals of the New
York Academy of Sciences, 1124, 1-38.
Herzog, T. R. et al. (1997). Reflection and attentional
recovery as distinctive benefits of restorative environments.
Journal of Environmental Psychology, 17(2), 165-170.
Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: toward
an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental
Psychology, 15, 169182.
Midline Frontal Theta Activity
Theta frequency at the midline frontal region significantly decreased (p<
0.0001) after spending multiple days in nature. Power was calculated using a
fast Fourier Transform from individual theta frequency (average 4.6 Hz) at frontal
electrodes. Image shown represents 22 participants.
Posterior Alpha Activity
Alpha frequency at the posterior region significantly decreased (p< 0.005)
after spending multiple days in nature. Power was calculated using a fast
Fourier Transform from individual alpha frequency (average 9.3 Hz) at posterior
electrodes. Image shown represents one participant.
Nature allows for soft fascination through
involuntary attention. As the ACN deactivates,
the Default Mode Network (DMN) increases
activation. The DMN is associated with deactivation
of focused attention. Therefore, we predict activation
of the DMN allows for restoration in nature to occur.
Pre-Testing (1-2 weeks prior to trip): University lab
Trip Testing (3-4 days into trip): Desert campground
Post-Testing (1-2 weeks after trip): University lab
The 3-day Effect. Three days in nature can
significantly improve resting neurophysiological and
cognitive responses, as well as mood and well-being.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Adults and children are spending more time interacting with media and technology and less time participating in activities in nature. This life-style change clearly has ramifications for our physical well-being, but what impact does this change have on cognition? Higher order cognitive functions including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking are all heavily utilized in our modern technology-rich society. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that exposure to nature can restore prefrontal cortex-mediated executive processes such as these. Consistent with ART, research indicates that exposure to natural settings seems to replenish some, lower-level modules of the executive attentional system. However, the impact of nature on higher-level tasks such as creative problem solving has not been explored. Here we show that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50% in a group of naive hikers. Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting. We anticipate that this advantage comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions. A limitation of the current research is the inability to determine if the effects are due to an increased exposure to nature, a decreased exposure to technology, or to other factors associated with spending three days immersed in nature.
Full-text available
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) proposes that effortful directed attention can become fatigued in modern urban environments. Restoration can occur in a setting that evokes fascination (effortless attention). Ordinary natural settings evoke soft fascination, that is, moderate fascination accompanied by esthetic pleasure. Such settings enable a fully restorative experience, including the recovery of directed attention and the opportunity for serious reflection. Settings broadly classified as sports/entertainment are more likely to evoke hard fascination, that is, very high levels of fascination that fill the mind. Such settings permit directed attention recovery but afford little opportunity for reflection. We tested these ideas by having participants rate the perceived restorative effectiveness of three kinds of settings (ordinary natural, sports/entertainment, and everyday urban) under two goal-set conditions (as places for attentional recovery or for reflection). Ordinary natural settings were seen as having the highest overall restorative effectiveness, everyday urban settings as having the lowest, and sports/entertainment settings as in between. Moreover, sports/entertainment settings were seen as higher in restorative effectiveness for the attentional-recovery goal set than for the reflection goal set. No such goal-set difference occurred for the other two setting categories combined. These results are in agreement with the predictions of ART.
Full-text available
Thirty years of brain imaging research has converged to define the brain's default network-a novel and only recently appreciated brain system that participates in internal modes of cognition. Here we synthesize past observations to provide strong evidence that the default network is a specific, anatomically defined brain system preferentially active when individuals are not focused on the external environment. Analysis of connectional anatomy in the monkey supports the presence of an interconnected brain system. Providing insight into function, the default network is active when individuals are engaged in internally focused tasks including autobiographical memory retrieval, envisioning the future, and conceiving the perspectives of others. Probing the functional anatomy of the network in detail reveals that it is best understood as multiple interacting subsystems. The medial temporal lobe subsystem provides information from prior experiences in the form of memories and associations that are the building blocks of mental simulation. The medial prefrontal subsystem facilitates the flexible use of this information during the construction of self-relevant mental simulations. These two subsystems converge on important nodes of integration including the posterior cingulate cortex. The implications of these functional and anatomical observations are discussed in relation to possible adaptive roles of the default network for using past experiences to plan for the future, navigate social interactions, and maximize the utility of moments when we are not otherwise engaged by the external world. We conclude by discussing the relevance of the default network for understanding mental disorders including autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease.
Directed attention plays an important role in human information processing; its fatigue, in turn, has far-reaching consequences. Attention Restoration Theory provides an analysis of the kinds of experiences that lead to recovery from such fatigue. Natural environments turn out to be particularly rich in the characteristics necessary for restorative experiences. An integrative framework is proposed that places both directed attention and stress in the larger context of human-environment relationships.