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The nature effect in motion: visual exposure to environmental scenes impacts cognitive load and human gait kinematics

Spending time in natural environments leads to improvements in our attention and concentration. But why is our mental acuity better after a walk through the forest rather than a stroll through Times Square? In a study led by Daria Burtan and colleagues at the Universities of Bristol (UK) and British Columbia (Canada) published in Royal Society Open Science, they found the answer by looking at how people walk –– literally. As our cognitive faculties begin to decline in older age, the stepping patterns we make with our feet become slower and more variable, relative to when we are younger in the prime of our health. Burtan and colleagues found that the same thing happened when people walked whilst looking at images of urban scenes –– their stepping patterns became slower and more varied, relative to when they were looking at natural scenes. Not only does this suggest that natural environments place fewer processing demands on our brains, it demonstrates how measuring the real-time dynamics of our gait provides us with a powerful new tool for informing on the cognitive impacts of architecture and urban design.