April 10th, 2013 by

A walk in the park

A walk in the park. Credit: Vincent Brassine

It’s not news that time in the great outdoors is good for your brain. We’ve written before about how exposure to nature is good for creative problem solving and mental health.

But how can we determine how much of this relationship is causal when there could be other reasons for correlation? Well, a new study released from researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh published in the British Journal of Science has begun answering that question with some pretty high-tech tools.

The 12 study participants were given portable electroencephalograms (EEGs) called Emotiv EPOC to wear under hats against their scalps. The EEGs measured brain waves and sent data wirelessly to a laptop in the participant’s backpack. And here I thought Google glasses sounded high-tech! The participants were then sent on a mile-and-a-half stroll through three neighborhoods — a quiet shopping district, a park and a busy business district.

Analyzing their brain waves for patterns associated with short-term excitement, frustration, engagement, long-term excitement (mental arousal) and meditation, the researchers found that walking through the park eased participants’ brain fatigue. While they maintained attention to their surroundings, they also were able to reflect, unlike the heightened mental arousal that they experienced on the busy streets.

While a study of 12 participants doesn’t provide a large pool of data, the use of the new portable EEGs may open up a whole new world of studying nature’s effect on the brain in real-time. It certainly adds to the growing body of data telling us that planting and maintaining urban forests makes for a happier, healthier city and happier, healthier people.