Some days ago, I was reading Kant's Critique of Judgement, and I was really impressed by his arguments in favour of being in touch with nature (especially in paragraph 42). Kant simply says that intellectual interest in nature is favourable for morality. Now, reading Jonah Lehrer's Frontal Cortex, I discovered a recent study that conlcudes that being in touch with nature has cognitive benefits. Here is the abstract of the paper by Berman, Jonides & Kaplan:
We compare the restorative effects on cognitive functioning of interactions with natural versus urban environments. Attention restoration theory (ART) provides an analysis of the kinds of environments that lead to improvements in directed-attention abilities. Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative. We present two experiments that show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities as measured with a backwards digit-span task and the Attention Network Task, thus validating attention restoration theory.
The counterpart isn't less astonishing: being in touch with urban enviroments is really bad for our brains. Jonah Lehrer tells us this story:
I'd like to tell you a story about a routine of modern life that is really bad for your brain. Everybody performs this activity - sometimes multiple times a day! - and yet we rarely realize the consequences [...] What is this dangerous activity? [...] the activity I'm referring to is walking down a city street. When people walk down the street, they are forced to exert cognitive control and top-down attention, and all that mental effort takes a temporary toll on their brain. Just consider everything your brain has to keep track of as you walk down a busy thoroughfare. There are the crowded sidewalks full of distracted pedestrians who have to be avoided; the hazardous crosswalks that require the brain to monitor the flow of traffic. (The brain is a wary machine, always looking out for potential threats.) There's the confusing urban grid, which forces people to think continually about where they're going and how to get there. / The reason such seemingly trivial mental tasks leave us depleted is that they exploit one of the crucial weak spots of the brain. A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren't distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception - we are telling the mind what to pay attention to - takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power. / Based on this data, it would be easy to conclude that we should avoid the metropolis, that the city street is a hazardous place.
Lehrer then tries to put in the table some arguments in favour of the cities. But I'm clearly convinced that avoiding the metropolis is the best I can do for my brain and for the health of my emotions. You can read the full Lehrer's post here, and the study by Berman, Jonides and Kaplan, here.