Two or three times a year, 63-year-old Tom Casey, a retired English teacher from West Sayville, N.Y., leads a group of hikers, most of them 50 and over, on a four-mile walk through hallowed literary ground: West Hills County Park on Long Island, located next to the birthplace of the poet Walt Whitman.
Whitman himself, born in West Hills in 1819, once walked some of these same trails as he mused on the beauty of nature and the meaning of life. At the end of the hike, the group gathers by a plaque to Whitman, where Casey reads some of the poet’s work. For the hikers, lines such as “I see my soul reflected in Nature” or “Give me again O Nature your primal sanities” not only extol the power of the outdoor experience, but define the aspirations of a generation.
Whitman was onto something
Whitman, modern research is showing, was onto something. Communing with nature, as the poet and his contemporary Henry David Thoreau were famous for doing and writing about, can help improve your memory, focus and attention.
While Whitman might not have recognized the terms used by psychologists at the University of Michigan when they talk about how time in the outdoors was found to improve “cognitive function,” he no doubt would have embraced their conclusion, as do Casey and his compatriots.
“When you read Leaves of Grass, you find that he uses the word ‘senses’ very frequently when he’s writing about nature” says Casey, president of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. “It’s in almost every passage when he refers to nature, about how alive he feels, and his senses take in so much. I think this is of a piece with the study.”
In the study, published in the December 2008 edition of the journal Psychological Science, 38 participants were assigned to take a 50- to 55-minute walk in the tree-lined Ann Arbor Arboretum or in the city’s traffic-heavy downtown area. Afterward, they were given tests to evaluate their mental acuity. The researchers found that the attention and memory spans of those who had walked in the arboretum's natural setting improved by 20 percent.
Respite from sensory overload
Why? “Most nature walks have stimulation that attracts attention automatically, but does so softly,” says the study’s lead author, psychology graduate student Marc Berman. “It grabs your attention, but allows you to think about other things at the same time, thereby allowing for reflection.”
The walk in the woods, as opposed to one down a busy thoroughfare, tends not to bombard you with stimuli that require an effort to tune out—sirens, car horns, billboards. By allowing our minds a respite from the typical sensory overload of an urban environment, time spent in nature “tends to be restorative,” Berman says. “It allows for reflection and mind wandering, while at the same time offering interesting things to look at.”
In other words, your mind can engage in a sort of beneficial “active rest”; free to attend to things of interest, free to reflect and wander, but without simultaneously working to tune out unwanted distractions.
No matter the weather
What’s more, the benefits did not depend on the weather, researchers found. Subjects who took a walk on a balmy 80-degree summer afternoon experienced the same benefit as those who trudged out on a cold 25-degree winter morning. The only difference was that participants enjoyed the walks more in the spring and summer than in the dead of winter.