July 2009: A Walk in the ParkJuly 1, 2009
I have heard many times that developing good leadership is not a walk in the park. But maybe it is.
Recent studies have stimulated my thinking about how contact with nature might help brain functioning.
A 2007 report published by Natural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, found that children’s behavior and school work improve if their playground has grassy areas, ponds and trees.
The report’s appropriately-named author, Dr William Bird, the health adviser to Natural England, has compiled evidence that people are healthier and better adjusted if they get out into nature.
Dr. Bird quotes studies that show a greater risk of depression and anxiety for those deprived of contact with nature. He claims that stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces, and that even filling a home with flowers and plants can improve concentration and lower stress.
The doctor says kids need time “playing in the countryside, in parks and in gardens where they can explore, dig up the ground and build dens.”
Supposedly, children with ADHD have better concentration after a walk in a park compared to a walk in an urban setting.
Does this apply only to children?
In a series of studies, Frances Kuo, a professor of natural resources and environmental science and psychology at the University of Illinois, found that adults with less access to nature show relatively poor attention or cognitive function, poor management of major life issues and poor impulse control.
A few months ago, an article headlined “Nature Essential for the Brain” appeared in the Boston Globe. The article sited several studies showing that an overload of urban living impairs basic mental functioning.
If this research is accurate, time spent in natural settings can reduce cognitive strain, increase self-control and give important brain functions depleted by busyness and noise an opportunity to replenish.
But it’s more complicated that that.
Research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the “concentration of social interactions” that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists.
These studies appear at a time when, for the first time in human history, the majority of the planet’s population now lives in cities. Most workplaces are now situated in enclosed space, surrounded by buildings, traffic and artificial noises.
Here are some questions these ideas have triggered:
What are the implications for leaders who have greater contact with nature?
How might a leader gain the brain-rejuvenating benefits of nature without sacrificing the innovation benefits of intense social interaction?
Does the pace and rhythm of your life include time in or around nature? If so, do you notice any difference in your functioning as a result?
Is this difference affected by whether the access to nature is rural (woods, cornfields, streams, meadows) or suburban (parks, golf courses, backyard gardens)?
What percentage of your time off is spent in the relative quiet of nature vs. noisier pursuits involving television, crowded resorts, airports, theme parks, etc.?
How does “the IPod culture” affect brain functioning?
Does the brain need a rest?
If so, does a “brain nap” in nature produce better leadership decisions than, say, a lunchtime stroll on busy city sidewalks?
Do the mountains, clean lakes and streams, rolling farmland, hills, vineyards, forests, parks and golf courses dotting the landscape of Western and Central New York translate into less anxiety for its leaders?
Are the leaders who work in Manhattan, Orlando, Dallas, San Jose and Detroit more innovative based on the social interactions, activity, diversity and sensual stimulation of urban life?
Personally, I have relished the interplay between urban and rural, and between busy and dormant.
My best ideas come to me either in moments of quiet or in highly-engaged conversation. My particular brain seems to need a lot of both.
I have noticed that creating time in nature triggers relaxation which leads to deeper thinking. Deeper thinking has produced clarity and better ideas in my family and work.
Sometimes, “puttering” produces breakthrough ideas. It’s as if the down time reinvigorates the mental processes to come back even stronger.
This correlates with long-standing research suggesting that moments of innovation, illumination, invention and creativity often take place in times of relaxation.
One of my mentors, Dr. Edwin Friedman, said that sometimes more thinking cannot get a leader through an impasse. It takes adventure, doing something differently, going the other way.
There is little question that our brains evolved in nature and quiet.
Maybe we can only progress by going backwards.
It could be that we are getting too removed from an important mental food source.
What do you think?
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