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Take a Walk

Thinking 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 human-made forms.

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.

“Nature” 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” are incompatible.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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