March 30, 2011
Don’t you love this time of year? Here in Texas, anyway, early spring (March-April) and late fall (October-November) are our best bets for having what we call “Chamber of Commerce” weather. Today is a great example. The day started out cool (low in the upper 40′s) and has warmed up nicely, but it’s definitely not hot. It’s like a summer day in the Rocky Mountains except there aren’t any mountains to look at. However, you can’t spoil my enjoyment of this day by reminding me we live in the flatlands.
So what does a good weather day have to do with a learning blog? It turns out that what I have known intuitively most of my life can now be backed up by some pretty good science. What I have known for a very long time is that being outdoors and enjoying nature helps me think better. Whether it is a walk in the woods, hiking up a mountain trail, or walking on the water’s edge of a beautiful beach, I have always found these kinds of settings to be incredibly relaxing and I seem to just think better.
When I was in college, one of my habits was to spend a few days during final exam preparation time with my grandparents. At that time, my grandparents lived in a retirement community that was situated on a large piece of rural property. Just a few steps from their front door was a trailhead that led to a mile or so meandering path around a 5 acre lake. You could also head off this path and find rolling hills that were covered in native flowers and trees where you were as likely to encounter a rabbit or deer as you were to see or even hear another human. I loved it. I found that spending an hour or so wandering in the woods made it much easier to get back to studying history or accounting.
Here’s the scientific evidence. Dr. John Jonides and some of his colleagues at the University of Michigan have begun a line of research into the cognitive benefits of nature. I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Jonides at a conference in San Francisco about a year ago. He refers to natural settings as “softly fascinating environments.” The gist of the research is that there is something about these types of environments which seem to allow our brains to recover and be renewed in a way which helps us perform cognitive tasks better. Here is a link to one their seminal journal articles on this research.
About this time of the semester, I hear many students express near exasperation at the amount of work they have to do. Often they mildly (or not so mildly) complain about having to sit in classes when the weather outside is so inviting. Here is my solution. Don’t skip class, but definitely do take some time on these beautiful days to enjoy nature. That might just mean skipping the bus ride and taking the scenic route through campus green spaces between classes. It also may mean taking the time and effort to find a place away from campus where trees and squirrels are more numerous than cars and people. Go to a park, take a bike ride around a lake, hike through the woods, or plan a weekend camping trip to a state park. The time you spend outside with the trees and birds may actually help you get a better grasp on calculus or philosophy.