DEPARTMENTS


Nature In, Stress Out

By Nicole Wisniewski


Go ahead. Inhale that fresh-cut grass; it's good for you, your employees and your clients.

Australian researchers have discovered when grass is cut it releases chemicals that make people feel happy and relaxed. In fact, it can even prevent the mental decline of old age. The scent works directly on the brain, affecting the regions responsible for emotion and memory, according to Nick Lavidis, a neuroscientist at Australia's University of Queensland. These two areas "are responsible for the flight or fight response and the endocrine system, which controls the release of stress hormones like corticosteroids," he says, explaining the scent of fresh-cut grass helps regulate those areas.

The idea that visiting green spaces lessens stress and improves concentration is not new. Scientists have known for some time the noise and hectic demands of city life can limit or overwhelm the human brain's ability to stay calm and focused. This can result in brain fatigue, where the mind is easily distracted, forgetful and mentally flighty.

According to Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times health and wellness columnist, researchers have long theorized green spaces counter this stress with calm, requiring less mental attention than busy, urban streets. "Natural settings invoke 'soft fascination,' a beguiling term for quiet contemplation, during which directed attention is barely called upon and the brain can reset those overstretched resources and reduce mental fatigue," Reynolds explains.

More confirmation

"But this theory, while agreeable, has been difficult to put to the test," she adds. "Previous studies have found that people who live near trees and parks have lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone in their saliva than those who live primarily amid concrete, and that children with attention deficits tend to concentrate and perform better on cognitive tests after walking through parks or arboretums."

However, a new study from researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine took these theories to the streets for actual man-on-the-street testing.

For the study, researchers attached new, portable EEGs to the scalps of 12 healthy, young adults that sent brain wave readings wirelessly to laptops carried in backpacks by volunteers. Volunteers were sent on short walks of 1.5 miles winding through three sections of Edinburgh: half a mile through an older, historic shopping district with light traffic; half a mile through a park-like setting; and half a mile through a busy, commercial district with heavy traffic and concrete buildings. Walkers moved at their own pace, finishing in approximately 25 minutes.

The results are something landscape professionals would find interesting for not only their customers while selling landscape improvements and maintenance, but also for their employees who work in these natural settings.

The study found that mental arousal and frustration instantly registered on brain wave patterns in the busy commercial district, while meditative, quieter brain waves registered as walkers strolled through park areas.

The brain doesn't shut down in green spaces; it relaxes, study authors explain. "Natural environments still engage the brain," says Jenny Roe, a lecturer at Heriot-Watt's School of the Built Environment, who oversaw the study. "But the attention demanded is effortless. They hold our attention while at the same time allowing scope for reflection."

While the study was small, the findings were "consistent and strong," Reynolds points out.

Green values confirmed

What's interesting to consider is the fact that these positive brain wave responses could be the reason other studies show homeowners value their green spaces. For instance, the recent TruGreen Lawn Lifestyles National Survey of America revealed that 79 percent of homeowners think having a healthy, green space contributes to their home's overall worth. Think about the connection between actual value and perceived value - the value we see when selling our homes and the value we experience when walking through the home's green space. One is clear on paper in the form of dollars and cents; the other is usually realized by a general encouraging and tranquil feeling. This Heriot-Watt study proves there's brain wave relaxation happening that we feel but can't see.

The study suggests that one should consider "taking a break ... and going for a walk in a green space or just sitting or even viewing green spaces from your window," Roe says. "It's likely to have a restorative effect and help with attention fatigue and stress recovery."

How's that for a spring sales pitch?

Nicole Wisniewski is a 15-year green industry veteran and award-winning journalism and marketing professional. She is a senior project manager in The Davey Tree Expert Co.'s marketing/corporate communications department. Reach her at nwisniewski@neo.rr.com.