Why Your Brain Wants You To Go Outside

We hear it all the time from visitors – “Hawaii is paradise” “You’re so lucky you live in Hawaii!” and “You must go to the beach all the time!” But reality is, so many of us are too busy with school, family and work to spend tons of time frolicking in the great outdoors.

But research shows that spending time in natural environments have real, measurable psychological benefits. Researchers Rachel and Stephen Kaplan found in the ‘80s that exposure to natural environments significantly improved participants’ performance on attention, memory, and cognition tests, especially compared to urban or indoor environments.

There are two kinds of cognitive attention: directed attention and effortless attention. With directed attention, you have to focus on processing specific stimuli, while filtering out others. You also have to suppress physiological or emotional distractions. Examples: avoiding traffic, reading signs, navigating through street grids. For effortless attention, you don’t require any conscious focus or response. It’s the kind of attention you give to a beautiful sunset or gorgeous beach. These natural environments engage our cognitive function in a way that doesn’t drain capacity or cause mental fatigue, which is the case with directed attention.

Going outside also has reduced stress and better mental health outcomes. For example, office workers with windows facing natural scenery have reported higher job satisfaction and less workplace frustration. For children, the variety of objects and patterns found in natural landscapes encourages imaginative play, which is linked to social as well as cognitive development. This article on SciLearn by Kristina Birdsong says:

“A study focusing on inner-city children found that, at least for girls, greener home surroundings correlated with greater impulse control and self-discipline. Likewise, playing in natural spaces was associated with a reduction of symptom severity in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. In a broader sense, the open and unstructured nature of outdoor natural spaces encourages social cohesion through group activity and cooperative problem-solving. And this benefit of green spaces also extends to adults, especially those belonging to marginalized urban populations.”

You can learn more about the cognitive benefits of going outside with this link.