The Restorative Effects of Nature

Several months ago my friend Ben Casnocha sent me an article from titled How the city hurts your brain… And what you can do about itThe article starts out strong and continues all the way through.

“Now scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.”

Regardless of how calm and centered you are, the first quarter of 2009 was a stressful time for most people.  These stressors came from lots of different places, but were especially evident to me whenever I was in a major city or an airport where I’d always try to take a few minutes, sit quietly, and watch the look on people’s faces as they walked (or hustled, or ran) by.

The article isn’t anti-city – in fact is concludes with:

“Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the "concentration of social interactions" that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists. The density of 18th-century London may have triggered outbreaks of disease, but it also led to intellectual breakthroughs, just as the density of Cambridge — one of the densest cities in America — contributes to its success as a creative center. One corollary of this research is that less dense urban areas, like Phoenix, may, over time, generate less innovation.

The key, then, is to find ways to mitigate the psychological damage of the metropolis while still preserving its unique benefits. Kuo, for instance, describes herself as "not a nature person," but has learned to seek out more natural settings: The woods have become a kind of medicine. As a result, she’s better able to cope with the stresses of city life, while still enjoying its many pleasures and benefits. Because there always comes a time, as Lou Reed once sang, when a person wants to say: ‘I’m sick of the trees/take me to the city.’”

This is seriously interesting stuff to me as I live my life in many different places including (a) a small city (Boulder), (b) the mountains (Eldorado Canyon and Keystone), (c) a tiny remote town (Homer, Alaska), (d) on the road in large cities (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles), and (e) on vacation in a variety of places large, small, central, and remote.  I never ever get tired of being in Eldorado Canyon, Keystone, Homer, or Boulder.  Nor do I ever get tired of the stimuli from New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc.  I end up with short intense bursts (one to five days) in the big city followed by regular time away from it.  While I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the interplay between all of the different places I spend time in, there is no doubt in my mind that the time away from the big cities helps me stay fresh, mentally agile, and restored.

It’s starting to get light outside so it’s time for an hour run – all by myself – in the mountains.

  • DaveJ

    I agree with the benefits of mixing it up, but you seem to be unique in your ability to tolerate the travel that is required. "Getting there" (and back) is exhausting for me and reduces the benefits of both the stimulative environment and the natural world.

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  • That's an interesting idea. I remember talking to JB Holston about NewsGator's choice of an office (I loved that it was downtown Denver and not in DTC or any number of other suburban office parks) and he remarked that there was at least a perception of an energy about downtown that you don't find in other locations.

    On the face of the author's conclusions, you might be better off locating your office in the middle of Nebraska.

  • I know the feeling; I love escaping to the mountains after too much time in cities (or too much time online, for that matter). Reducing stimuli is how I find my "center"; it can happen anywhere, but it's more fun out in the wilderness 🙂

  • DaveB

    Quite an article. I wonder how much of this is truly related to "the city" or is it more about "the clutter" that enters our lives. I might expect the same experience to result from a visit to a busy shopping mall – or a classroom full of out-of-control 3rd graders. Many people might feel invigorated by a trip through the streets of somewhere like New York or LA or Chicago simply because it is different from the daily norm, but their experience of being on the street results in rather limited exposure before they are safely in the confines of a comparatively quiet office space or conference room.

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