What is it about the fall season that inspires us to get outside? Whether it is the inviting colors, the crisp air, the sounds of rustling leaves, or even the looming confinement that comes with the cold winter months, we seem especially content to escape the trappings of technology and busy schedules and explore and play outside.
I, personally, enjoy hiking at this time of year. I didn't very much when I was younger. It wasn't something that my family regularly did with the exception of our annual trek up a small mountain in the state of Maine. Many years later, I have developed a deep appreciation for exploring the more wild and natural beauty of this country. Being able to spend time walking in the woods, up a mountain, along a river or around a lake helps me relax, improves my health, and, would you believe, increases my ability to use my brain.
As part of its series on the 100th anniversary of our national parks, National Geographic magazine featured a story last winter on nature and the brain, "This Is Your Brain On Nature". The story features the work of University of Utah cognitive psychology professor David Strayer, a leading expert on attention science. Strayer's research reveals, according to the author, "that it’s the visual elements in natural environments—sunsets, streams, butterflies—that reduce stress and mental fatigue...such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover." What happens when you try to memorize facts, solve problems, and tackle a complex task when you are tired, stressed, or mentally exhausted? Typically, the result is failure, frustration, and a need to start over. The brain needs escape and rest. Exposure to our natural world the research suggests, allows our brains to rest and recover and ultimately increase our ability to effectively function through our school/work problems and projects.
Dr. Strayer's work was also featured in a highly recommended article in Outside magazine. The author summarizes the increasingly popular hypothesis that "the constant demands of emails, notifications, and general busy-ness put a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the region involved in multitasking and higher-order thinking (like critical thinking and problem solving). Those small demands add up to drain our attentional resources, making us distracted and cognitively fatigued—which in turn makes it more difficult to focus, think deeply, and come up with new ideas." Dr. Strayer uses electric brain activity tests (EEGs) and creative problem solving tasks to prove this connection between natural escape and improved cognitive ability. The results have revealed the benefits to include increased creative thinking, improved ability to focus, and more active imagination. Critics may argue that television, video games, or just sitting on the couch may also provide the brain this escape. Dr. Strayer, as he describes in the article, argues that nature allows our brain to enter a state of soft fascination and that it is only nature that “you can watch without getting bored, but it’s not in itself mentally taxing. It can be mesmerizing… it’s a gentle capturing of attention. And it frees your mind to wander, which is one of the best ways to get the creative juices flowing."
I find the connection between nature and the brain to be very intriguing. I am motivated to find new and effective ways to incorporate "nature" into the student experience. I imagine the most effective thing we can do as leaders of children, is to model for them the importance and benefits of putting the 21st century on pause, and getting "back to nature".
What are your family's favorite natural escapes?
Book Suggestion: Dr. Strayer's work on attention is also featured in this powerful book about the dangers of texting and driving- a great topic for a future post.