Focusing on greenery during city walks has mental health benefits

In a new study published in the journal People and nature, researchers from Bangor University and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology have shown that simply observing natural elements during urban walks can significantly benefit mental health. Research shows that city dwellers who pay visual attention to vegetation rather than man-made structures tend to experience reduced anxiety and a greater sense of restoration.

Urbanization has brought numerous advantages, such as economic growth and innovation. However, city living is often associated with chronic stress and mental fatigue, leading to conditions such as depression and anxiety. Previous research has consistently highlighted the positive effects of interacting with nature, including improved mood, stress reduction, and cognitive benefits.

Despite these findings, the specific aspects of nature that contribute to these mental health benefits remain unclear. The new study aimed to fill that gap by investigating how visual attention to green elements during urban walks influences psychological well-being.

Over nine months, the researchers recruited 117 adult participants without neurological or psychiatric disorders. The participants were divided into three groups: the green group, the gray group and the mixed group. Each group was assigned a specific focus during a 45-minute walk around the Technion campus in Haifa, Israel.

Each group followed the same route but made stops at different points, depending on the assigned focus. The green group stopped at locations with natural elements such as trees and grass, the gray group stopped at locations dominated by artificial structures such as buildings and roads, and the mixed group stopped at points with both natural and artificial elements. At each stopping point, participants were asked to focus their gaze on the specified items.

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To monitor participants’ visual attention, they were equipped with Tobii Pro 2 eye-tracking glasses. These glasses used infrared cameras to track eye movements, allowing the researchers to see exactly what the participants were looking at during their walk. Before beginning the walk, participants completed surveys to assess their anxiety levels, positive and negative emotions, and cognitive function. The researchers also measured the perceived restorative capacity of the subsequent walk.

Participants in the green group, who focused on the vegetation, experienced a significant reduction in anxiety levels after the walk. This group also reported higher levels of perceived restorability compared to the gray group, which focused on human-made structures. Interestingly, the mixed group also showed a greater perception of restorative capacity, although to a lesser extent than the green group.

In terms of emotional impact, both the green and mixed groups reported a decrease in negative affect, including feelings of distress and irritation, after the walk. Additionally, the green group showed a marginal increase in positive affect, indicating feelings of excitement and alertness. However, there were no significant changes in cognitive performance between groups, suggesting that visual focus on natural elements did not influence cognitive recovery in the context of this study.

The eye-tracking data provided more information. Participants who spent more time looking at green elements such as trees, bushes, and grass showed greater reductions in anxiety and greater perceived restorativeness. This suggests that specific natural elements may offer more mental health benefits than others. The study also highlighted the importance of visual engagement with nature, as simply being in a natural environment was not enough; Actively focusing on the eco-friendly elements was key to experiencing the benefits.

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“This finding implies that a subtle shift in attention to nature can substantially improve daily well-being in urban areas. This knowledge is vital for urban planning, since it suggests the creation of spaces that offer not only access to natural elements, but also promote commitment to nature, which could influence well-being and pro-protection behaviors. conservation,” the researchers concluded.

“Understanding which natural elements confer these benefits is key to transforming cities into healthier habitats for both humans and wildlife. Our research highlights the importance of further exploring visual and sensory interactions with nature in urban contexts, underlining its importance in improving mental health and wellbeing. We also demonstrate for the first time the potential benefits of using mobile eye-tracking technology in outdoor urban settings to explore how visual intake of elements from nature influences well-being, although challenges remain in using this technology effectively in exteriors”.

The study, “Nature’s Gaze: An Eye-Tracking Experiment Reveals Well-Being Benefits of Directing Visual Attention Towards Elements of Nature”, was written by Whitney Fleming, Brian Rizowy and Assaf Shwartz.

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