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Need a Self Control Boost? Get Outside

Spending time in nature is an effective (and free) way to fight impulsivity, a new study finds.
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Is mother nature trying to put pharmaceutical companies out of business?

First research uncovers that spending time in the great outdoors (or even your local city park) can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and improves your mood, while getting plenty of natural light is not only good for your physical health but also boosts creativity. Now science suggests that not only can getting outside can support your heart health and act as an antidepressant, it's also the a sort of natural Ritalin--seeing nature aids in controlling impulsivity, according to a new study.

A Natural Self Control Boost

To test the effect of exposure to the outdoors on our self-control, a team out of Utah State University and the University of Montana invited 185 undergrads into the lab to view images of either nature, urban scenes or geometric shapes. The students were then given a standard test of impulse control that asks them to decide whether they'd like a smaller amount of money now or a larger amount later.

The results, published recently in the online journal PLoS One, showed that you don't even need to experience nature firsthand to have it work it's effects on your brain. Just looking at bucolic scenes boosted participants' impulse control.

"Exposure to scenes of natural environments resulted in significantly less impulsive decision-making," the scientists concluded.

The reason for this effect remains unclear, but the team behind the study does offer some speculation as to causes. One possibility is that viewing nature increases our ability to pay attention, allowing us to take in more of a decision's possible consequences. Another has to do with the reported effects of nature to slow down the perception of time, which might make the wait for some delayed gratification seem less burdensome. More research is needed to be sure.

How Much Nature Do You Need to Get?

One thing that is certain is the self-control increase recorded by the researchers was caused by just one short, ten-minute stint looking at photographs. The effects might be much larger if subjects experiences nature firsthand and for longer periods. "It was a brief exposure--overall, less than ten minutes on a computer screen, not an immersion in the environment," one the researchers Kerry Jordan noted. "We know that virtual views of nature can help us be healthier and restore attention, but other studies have shown immersion works even better."

That's good news for those planning an extended hiking trip, but it might not be so cheerful for city dwellers could feel the cumulative effect of being deprived of nature. The research suggests that living for prolonged periods without access to open spaces could wear away at our self-control. Never has the local park looked like such a promising place to spend lunch.

But even if you can't make more time to spend in the great outdoors, modest changes to your office that incorporate natural elements--such as adding potted plants or nature photographs--could help you make better, more self controlled decisions.

Last updated: Jul 3, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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