Monday, January 21, 2013

The Mental Fatigue/Aggression/Nature Connection

Some studies that speak to the unity of humans and nature focus on issues of aggression and violence. And in my mind, those that are particularly important are the ones that suggest that anger and aggression decrease when we spend time in nature (see my post about blood pressure and nature walks).

For example, some researchers bring attention to links between increased human aggression and violence with noise, crowding, and high temperatures.

And Stephen Kaplan found that people whose directed attention is fatigued become irritable and often seek to be alone. (Kaplan, along with some other researchers, believes that nature requires a different type of attention than human-built environments, leading it to play a restorative function for human attention.)

Study in inner-city Chicago
One study found a connection between a lack of exposure to natural settings and aggression/violence amongst inner-city Chicago residents living in poverty.

A hallmark of many impoverished, inner-city neighbourhoods in North America is that they tend not to have as many parks and green spaces as richer neighbourhoods. And the thing about green spaces, even in cities, is that they can help to reduce mental fatigue (see my post about how even window views of nature can help).

The researchers, Frances Kuo and William Sullivan, believe that the ongoing stress associated with poverty and the pervasive risks of crime and unpredictable violence for those living in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods contribute to heightened levels of mental fatigue, since residents are constantly on guard for signs of trouble.

They worked with residents living in several public housing apartments. The living spaces themselves were similar, but some had access to trees and grass immediately outside their building while others opened onto barren lands or concrete.

And Kuo and Sullivan found significantly lower levels of intrafamily violence when those families had access to trees and grass outside their apartment building!

The bottom line
The researchers warn against over-generalizing their research and urge caution in extrapolating their results to other settings.

However, I can’t help but draw parallels between people living in poverty in inner-city neighbourhoods and soldiers’ experiences during combat, since soldiers are also under constant stress, vigilant for signs of danger and/or situations of concern, and also often lack access to restorative settings.

Other parallels that come to mind are refugee camps and other communities affected by violence, where people are constantly stressed by their life situation.

And if something that seems so minor – a few trees and grass outside a building – makes a significant difference in decreasing levels of violence, we need to pay more attention to this! Remember, too, the ways that when children play together in green play spaces, they are more creative, cooperative, and collaborative (Why isn’t every schoolyard green?).

I’m not saying that access to nature is the solution to all problems of violence in our world, but for now, it seems like a start...

Hartig, Terry. (2003). Guest editors’ introduction: Restorative environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 103-107.

Kaplan, Stephen. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

Kuo, Frances E. and Sullivan, William C. (2001). Aggression and violence in the inner city: Effects of environment via mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33, 543-571.

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