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The Arts and Wellbeing: Nature Pictures and Cognitive Capacity

What are some of the benefits of renting art from the Canada Council Art Bank? Our Arts and Wellbeing series looks at how the presence of art can have a positive impact on our lives—in the workplace and beyond.

Can natural environments boost our wellbeing? People in the 19th century certainly thought so. That’s why landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted created spaces of respite in urban areas—like New York’s Central Park and Montréal’s Mount Royal Park—to encourage “refreshing rest and invigoration to the whole system.”

A team of researchers at Georgetown University investigated this idea further. They wanted to know whether looking at nature pictures could affect cognitive capacity. Their study¹ focused on older adults between the ages of 64 and 79. An earlier study on young adults had been conclusive and researchers wanted to see if the results would also apply to the older age group.

In this study, participants completed a series of tests that rated mood and working memory as well as an Attention Network Test, which measured alerting attention, orienting attention, and executive attention. The researchers performed the tests in three blocks and in between each block; the participants looked at a series of 50 pictures of either scenes from nature or urban environments. Each picture was viewed for seven seconds, in the same order and for a total viewing time of six minutes.

Researchers found that viewing nature pictures significantly improved executive attention, in older adults, which is essential in managing short-term memory and blocking interfering stimuli when making a decision. Viewing urban pictures on the other hand, did not have any effect on cognitive capacity.

The researchers noted, however, that while participants enjoyed looking at nature pictures more than urban pictures, the nature pictures did not improve nor affect mood.

The effect of viewing nature pictures is comparable, according to the director of the study, to that of caffeine: both enhance cognition by producing a fast but temporary boost in executive attention.

In conclusion, a brief viewing of nature pictures offers an inexpensive and enjoyable way to temporarily boost cognitive function in both young and older adults.

Need something more than a cup of coffee to inspire your workplace? Contact the Art Bank to see how you can bring a view to nature into your space.

Toni Hafkensheid, Train on Trestle (2004)

David Alexander, Middle Boggle Burn (1985)

Suzanne Joubert, L’embarcadère (2000)

See more nature inspired artworks in the Art Bank collection…


About the Author: Sonia Poisson
Sonia Poisson is a lecturer and freelance researcher specialising in the anthropology of art. She received an M.A. in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths College, University of London and an M.A. in Art History from Carleton University. She works on various historical and arts-related projects for television, documentaries and museum exhibitions.

¹Katherine R. Gamble, James H. Howard Jr. & Darlene V. Howard (2014) Not Just Scenery: Viewing Nature Pictures Improves Executive Attention in Older Adults, Experimental Aging Research, 40:5, 513-530, DOI: 10.1080/0361073X.2014.956618

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