Last year, a group of Edinburgh architecture researchers asked a dozen students to take a walk. They began on a tree-lined shopping drag, turned along the tranquil northern edge of the Meadows, one of the city’s larger parks, and wound up in a busy commercial district some half-hour later. The pastoral section of an otherwise urban jaunt, the researchers found, induced a significant increase in meditative thinking.
This may not strike you as a novel discovery. Thanks to Henry Thoreau’s trip to Walden Pond, Teddy Roosevelt’s sojourn in the Badlands, and America’s other legends of retreat, the idea that nature has restorative powers is deeply embedded in our culture. Science is in support: A raft of studies credit bucolic settings with reducing aggression, alleviating depression, and improving mental function.
This is not quite the same old story, though. The results of the Edinburgh study were obtained through mobile electroencephalography (EEG) technology. Participants took their 25-minute walk with a web of electrodes glued to their scalps and a laptop computer in a backpack to record their neural impressions, step by step. When the paper says that the transition to North Meadow Lane was marked by “reductions in arousal, frustration and engagement, and an increase in meditation,” it is not referring to participants’ reactions on a lab-administered survey or test, but to fluctuations in brain activity recorded in situ.
It is, the researchers say, one of the first — if not the first — experiments to record live neural…
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