The spirit of Hike it Baby that endures for me, beyond meeting up for hikes, is the desire to instill in our children the glory of time spent outside. Nature is a space for us to unwind and reenergize, all at the same time. We know time spent in nature is good for us and science agrees. Recently I interviewed Dr. Marc Berman, Director of the Environmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Chicago. His lab focuses on determining why nature is good for us and what it does to our brain chemistry.
Marc, what can you tell us about what scientists already know about nature’s impact on our health?
Science and scientists all agree that nature and natural environments are good for us. However, what we have not determined is why they are good for us. A couple of factors could be at play here; a better air quality, being more likely to exercise, our brain simply likes being outside, or a number of other things.
In a study done recently, that documented how patients who recovered from gall bladder surgery had their recovery times reduced simply by having a room with a view of the park instead of the parking garage. Obviously, in that instance, the air quality and exercise factors don’t play into the equation, so there has to be something about your brain’s capacity to visually interpret the nature outside the window.
So, the visual appearance matters. Do both adults and children show this preference?
We know that adults prefer pictures of nature. That is true across cultures, ethnicities, and races. Different types of cultures value different aesthetics or types of nature- but they all value it. Our lab is currently running a study to see whether children also prefer nature, or if it is something they learn as they age.
If being outside is important, does it matter where you are? Or is simply being outside the goal?
Currently there are studies running that factor in location. These studies focus on if the type of environment matters, ie. a local park, national park, outside on a busy street, or indoors. There is a factor that deals with directed versus involuntary attention. Directed attention is when you choose to focus on a stimulant. This is what you do when you are working or at school. This type of attention can become fatigued, which is why you are tired at 3 pm or after a long day of work. The other type of attention, involuntary, happens when bright lights or loud noises occur. Your brain cannot help noticing these images and sounds. This type of attention cannot be fatigued.
By going on a hike in a location where your directed attention is at a minimum and your involuntary attention is focusing on the interplay of light on the leaves or a landscape, you allow your brain to rest and restore itself. Now if you are at a gorgeous park but talking all the time on a cell phone, which requires you to pay attention, then you won’t be receiving the maximum benefit.
That is really cool. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with the Hike it Baby community?
There was recently a study done in Ann Arbor that showed it doesn’t matter if the walk was quantifiably good or bad, your brain still received the restorative benefits from nature. We had subjects go for a walk on a perfect summer day and a blustery cold January day. While the second group rated their walk poorer, their brains showed the same amounts of rejuvenation as the walkers in the summer.
That’s proof of what most Hike it Baby families already know, getting outside is great for us, even when the weather isn’t.
For those of you who would like to learn more, there are labs that focus on research specifically with children in nature. Dr. Louise Chawla of the Environmental Design Program at the University of Colorado recently wrote an article encouraging the integration of green spaces around children’s homes and schools as well as throughout cities by urban trails, parks and what she calls “rough spaces” to encourage children’s creative play.