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Cognitive restoration in children following exposure to nature: Evidence from the attention network task and mobile eye tracking

Summary


A walk in a natural environment produced a faster and more stable pattern of responding on an attention task compared with a walk in a built environment

This experimental study investigated the restorative effect of a natural environment on children’s cognitive performance. The study also collected eye tracking data to investigate whether visual processing differed between a natural environment and a built environment. Previous research on the restorative benefits of exposure to natural environments focused more on adults than children and — in situations where eye tracking was involved — nature exposure was based on digital photographs versus “in the wild.” Nature exposure in this study consisted of a 30-minute walk in a natural environment. The restorative and eye tracking results of the walk in the natural environment were compared with results of a walk in a built environment.

Thirty-two children (age 10-14) participated in this study by taking 30-minute walks in two contrasting environments: an urban built environment and a rural natural environment. Half of the group completed the walk in the natural environment first and then in the built environment. The other half did the opposite – walking in the built environment first and then in the natural environment. Random assignment determined which group they were in. Prior to each walk, the participants performed the Digit Span Forward and Digit Span Backward Tasks to induce cognitive fatigue. Prior to each walk, the participants also completed the Attention Network Task (ANT), which measures three distinct attention systems .The purpose of this assessment was to obtain baseline measures of cognitive performance in the participants’ fatigued state. After each of their walks, the participants completed the ANT again. They also completed a survey after each walk focusing on how they perceived the restorativeneses of the environment in which they had just walked.

A randomly selected sub-sample of the participants wore mobile eye-trackers while taking a second walk in both environments. Eye-trackers record eye movements and yield information about where the eyes are focused and how long they remained focused on any particular object of interest. Random assignment of order for walking assignments was not used in collecting the eye tracking data due to scheduling limitations. Analysis of eye tracking data was based on nine participants.

The children in this study perceived the natural environment to be more restorative than the built environment. The children also showed faster and more stable responding while performing the ANT after walking in a natural environment compared to a built environment. These results indicate that the walk in the natural environment was more cognitively restorative than the walk in the built environment. The walk in the natural environment, however, did not improve executive (directed) attention performance. As previous studies with adults showed that directed attention improved with exposure to natural environments, the findings from this study suggest that “children and adults experience unique cognitive benefits from nature.” Eye tracking data showed that participants made a greater number of eye fixations per minute while walking in the natural environment than in the built environment.

The overall results of this study support previous research showing that exposure to nature may counteract the effects of mental fatigue. This study also provides evidence of a link between cognitive restoration and the allocation of eye gaze.

Citation

Stevenson, M.P., Dewhurst, R., Schilhab, T., Bentsen, P., (2019). Cognitive restoration in children following exposure to nature: Evidence from the attention network task and mobile eye tracking. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(42)

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