A walk in the woods appears to sharpen the mind better than an urban asphalt amble, a new brain scan study finds.

People strolling through an arboretum at the University of Utah performed better on brain function tests than those who walked around an asphalt-laden medical campus, according to findings published recently in the journal Scientific Reports.

EEG data showed that a nature walk lit up brain regions related to executive control, which influences a person’s working memory, decision-making, problem-solving and planning, researchers said.

“The kinds of things that we do on an everyday basis tend to heavily use those executive attentional networks,” said researcher David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. “It’s an essential component of higher-order thinking.”

Humans have a primal need for nature, the researchers noted.

“There’s an idea called biophilia that basically says that our evolution over hundreds of thousands of years has got us to have more of a connection or a love of natural living things,” Strayer said in a university news release.

“And our modern urban environment has become this dense urban jungle with cellphones and cars and computers and traffic, just the opposite of that kind of restorative environment,” he added.

To see how a nature walk might affect the brain, researchers recruited 92 participants and recorded EEG readings on each immediately before and after they had a 40-minute walk.

Half the participants walked through Red Butte Garden, an arboretum just east of the University of Utah, and the other half walked through the university’s medical campus and parking lots.

Both routes covered two miles, with similar amounts of elevation gain.

“We know exercise benefits executive attention as well, so we want to make sure both groups have comparable amounts of exercise,” said researcher Amy McDonnell, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah.

Before the walk, all participants undertook a mentally exhausting brain exercise, followed by an attention-testing task.

“We start out by having participants do a really draining cognitive task in which they count backwards from 1,000 by sevens, which is really hard,” McDonnell said. “No matter how good you are at mental math, it gets pretty draining after 10 minutes.”

Participants performed the attention test again after their walk, to see how restorative the stroll had been for their minds.

Both the attention test and the EEG readings showed that a nature walk improved participants’ executive control better than an urban walk.

“The participants that had walked in nature showed an improvement in their executive attention on that task, whereas the urban walkers did not, so then we know it’s something unique about the environment that you’re walking in,” McDonnell said.

Researchers hope their future studies will tease out why natural settings might provide better brain benefits.

“If you understand something about what’s making us mentally and physically healthier, you could then potentially engineer our cities so that they supported that,” Strayer said.

The team is now assessing how cellphone use affects the benefits of a garden walk.

More information

Utah State University has more about nature and mental health.

SOURCE: University of Utah, news release, Jan. 29, 2024