The mind in the landscape

constable

Babbage reports on an intriguing new study that links the landscape we’re in (or looking at) to the time scale of our thoughts:

Sitting in his remote cottage, baby son slumbering by his side, Samuel Taylor Coleridge pondered the little one’s future in “Frost at Midnight”. A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society suggests his “abstruser musings” were not that unusual, given his alentours. Mark van Vugt, of VU University in Amsterdam, and his colleagues found that country scenery of the sort Coleridge beheld inspires people to think about the future; concrete cityscapes encourage quick decisions aimed at immediate rewards.

To reach that conclusion Dr van Vugt and his team randomly assigned 47 participants either to look at three city photographs, or three country photographs, for two minutes each. After that participants were asked to pick between €100 ($135) now or a larger sum, which grew in €10 increments up to €170, in 90 days’ time. Those beholding natural landscapes made the switch to deferred gratification at a sum, known as the indifference point, that was 10% below those who scanned cityscapes. The same was true when another 43 volunteers were asked either to walk in an actual forest outside Amsterdam or in the city’s commercial area of Zuidas.

This reminds me of the work that’s been done on “attention restoration theory,” which posits a link between landscape and attentiveness. I described one relevant study in The Shallows:

A team of University of Michigan researchers, led by psychologist Marc Berman, recruited some three dozen people and subjected them to a rigorous, and mentally fatiguing, series of tests designed to measure the capacity of their working memory and their ability to exert top-down control over their attention. The subjects were then divided into two groups. Half of them spent about an hour walking through a secluded woodland park, and the other half spent an equal amount of time walking along busy downtown streets. Both groups then took the tests a second time. Spending time in the park, the researchers found, “significantly improved” people’s performance on the cognitive tests, indicating a substantial increase in attentiveness. Walking in the city, by contrast, led to no improvement in test results.

The researchers then conducted a similar experiment with another set of people. Rather than taking walks between the rounds of testing, these subjects simply looked at photographs of either calm rural scenes or busy urban ones. The results were the same. The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness. “In sum,” concluded the researchers, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” Spending time in the natural world seems to be of “vital importance” to “effective cognitive functioning.”

I don’t find the results of these studies surprising. They match up pretty well with my own experience. What makes them valuable, I think, is the way they remind us that our minds are part of the world—something that’s easy to forget.

Image: detail from Constable’s “Landscape with Clouds.”

6 Comments

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6 Responses to The mind in the landscape

  1. Brad

    Does this mean that minds incrementally shed attentiveness as our technological homes change — from nature to village to rural community to industrial city to digital environment to space? It would then seem that mind’s two most fundamental projects are locked into opposition — spinning off into greater complexity and novelty (the creative/external) and finding our true home (the spiritual/internal).

  2. Peter Tenerife

    Interesting results. I agree with it and where I live on the island of Tenerife, I always had the feeling of being more clear in thoughts owing to the natural surroundings.

  3. Really interesting thoughts and conclusions. I personally can reflect this in a way that a city scape needs constant decisions, due to its density of diversion (people, mobility, culture) compared to landscape, where diversion is much less and focusing on the important things is easier.
    A question came to my mind, on how the results would be when the landscape would be some kind of dangerous environment from our feeling (eg. jungle or a swamp). Would we still get the same results.

  4. Daniel Cole

    Bring on the Ansel Adams screen savers!
    I was feeling a little nervous that I might actually have to go outside for a minute there.
    In all seriousness, is there a significant difference in the results of actually walking in the woods or the park as opposed to just looking at pictures of them?
    This reminds me of a recent Spark interview about neuroimaging that touched on similar research http://www.cbc.ca/spark/episodes/2013/10/25/229-link-rot-image-vs-reality-payphone-resurgence-virtual-economies-god-and-tech/#2

  5. Linda Catoe

    Because the city requires people to pay more attention to multiple situations simultaneously, while walking in the park or other pastoral settings allows people the opportunity to revive attention levels or reflect on a broader theme, like the future, I am reminded of a mobile media discussion in Charles Ess’ book, Digital Media Ethics. Ess raises the issue of the autonomous self, and theories that suggests that the rash of unethical online behavior by young people might relate directly to their 24/7 connection to their hectic Smartphone worlds, leaving no time to reflect, walk in the park and oh, I don’t know, give the autonomous self a shot at developing.

  6. Because the city requires people to pay more attention to multiple immediate situations simultaneously, while walking in the park or other pastoral settings revives attention levels and allows people the opportunity to reflect on a broader themes, like the future, I am reminded of a mobile media discussion in Charles Ess’ book, Digital Media Ethics. Ess raises the issue of the autonomous self, and theories that suggests that the rash of unethical online behavior by young people might relate directly to their 24/7 connection to their hectic Smartphone worlds, leaving no time to reflect, walk in the park and oh, I don’t know, give the autonomous self a shot at developing.