of taking a walk to clear your mind? Good idea. But does where
you walk matter?
That’s the question asked by some researchers at the University
of Michigan recently, with interesting results: Subjects sent
to walk in the woods of a nearby arboretum tested better on
various memory functions after they returned, while those
who walked the streets of Ann Arbor did not.
The researchers’ conclusion was that this has to do with different
kinds of attention: A walk that requires “vigilant” attention
(crossing streets, etc.) is more like work to the brain, which
is tiring, while the kind of attention you pay to something
like a waterfall is “involuntary” and refreshing. The friend
who sent the study to me added that he thinks it might go
beyond forms of attention to a matter of being in landscapes
that the human brain evolved in being more relaxing than newer
It’s an interesting study, and I don’t doubt there’s something
to it. When I get into some greenery after too long, I’ve
surely felt that sense of drinking in something I’d been missing,
waking up a little bit.
But the study, and the coverage of it, also makes me squirm
with frustration because I think it plays on some false dichotomies
in a way that makes us likely to miss the useful parts.
First, I have to question just how equivalent the two walks
were: The researchers did send students out in the cold, to
show that it wasn’t a question of mere physical comfort. But
did they send them into the arboretum in black fly season?
Or to bushwhack through a poison ivy patch? Or down the shoulder
of a suburban commercial highway strip? On the flip side,
what about a stroll down a quiet, tree-lined street of brownstones?
Or a car-free old-world plaza with a beautiful fountain in
the middle? Or a small urban park with a few old trees?
Also, how many decisions did the walkers have to make about
their routes? If those walking in the woods picked a path
and followed it to the end, that would obviously be much more
relaxing to the brain than having to make a decision at each
city intersection about which way to go. I personally find
a long cross-city walk with a clear destination in mind to
be incredibly invigorating and refreshing (much like a hike),
in a way that an uncertain, unbounded, slow recreational walk
in any context is not.
And finally, did the researchers control for each subject’s
own relationship to cities and to woods, or to the specific
locations they were walking?
No research project can control for everything, but we need
to be aware of what other factors may be influencing the results
in order to sift out what the results say, and don’t say.
The other thing, and perhaps the larger one, that bugs me
about the conversation this research sets off is how much
it plays on American’s historical anti-city prejudice. Sciencentral
summarizes it baldly: “A walk in nature sharpens the mind,
but a walk in the city does not,” and the accompanying video
on the study contrasts scenes of a stunning waterfall with
a guy on what looks like a crowded Manhattan corner, trying
to jaywalk from between two parked trucks. Quick quiz: Which
of these is likely to be better for your mental function?
Gee, thanks for the insight.
and “urban” are not mutually exclusive categories. There is
precious little landscape out there that is untouched by human
hands—and on the evolutionary argument, some of the landscapes
that most deeply touch our primal memories of African savannahs
are those urban parkscapes meticulously designed by the likes
of Frederick Law Olmsted (i.e., by humans). A well-designed,
sustainable city neighborhood is technically no less “natural”
than the mown lawn of a country estate.
Besides, on a practical note, if the goal is mental refreshment
during a walking break from the workday or studying, we can’t
be purist: most people taking those breaks don’t have quick
on-foot access to a wilderness area. As I’ve written about
before, there’s not enough space for us all to work in our
remote little cabins—and it wouldn’t be all that great, or
wild, if we did.
Urban areas have a lot of deep benefits for us as a social
species. And much like cities, city walks have benefits all
their own: They give us multiple chances to interact with
each other, have serendipitous meetings and discoveries, and
meet our needs without getting in a car (not to mention the
physical exercise of any walk).
If we want to add mental health improvement to those qualities,
which sounds wise to me, then perhaps we should take this
as a lesson to value our parks, calm traffic, add street trees
(and save the large old ones) and other objects of beauty
that command our involuntary attention, fight ambient noise
levels, and rethink our architecture and land use priorities,
to name a few. There’s plenty that needs doing. But we won’t
get it done if we continue to act as if “nature” and “city”