How Nature Lowers Stress in Your Brain

How Nature Lowers Stress in Your Brain

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

nature brain wellbeing

Does getting into the countryside really lower stress and improve wellbeing? Or is that those who enjoy the countryside feel less stressed in the countryside – but city lovers may feel less stressed in the city. It could also be that being in the countryside involves activity and exercise which we also know is beneficial so it could be the effect of movement and not nature itself.

This is a conundrum that researchers into the impacts of nature on health, wellbeing, and the brain need to try to disentangle. But first off there is plenty, and I do mean plenty, of research to show the positive effects of nature on human wellbeing and health – I regularly report on this: for example here or this one on walking in nature here.

To try to resolve some of these chicken-or-egg problems Sonja Sudimac et al. from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development conducted an interesting study. In this they compared the results of 63 people who undertook a 60-minute walk in the wood and of a 60-minute walk along the streets of Berlin.

What’s more their brains were scanned before and after both scenarios. This is unusual because almost all the research looks at subjective feelings – here the researchers could peer into the participants brains and see the difference before and after in city or in the forest.

What did they find?

The one thing they noticed is that activity decreased in a region of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is pretty well-known and is a centre in the brain that is involved in emotional processing but particularly of threat, fear, and in stress responses.

This therefore shows that brain regions associated with stress lower activation to walking in nature only and not in the city. The exercise is no doubt beneficial – the walk in the city, however, showed no increase or decrease in activity in the amygdala.

So, this is another piece of evidence but a very strong piece of evidence to show that nature can have beneficial effects – particularly in lowering stress.

The researchers are now following this up with research into how natural and urban environments impacts stress in mothers and their babies. I will be watching out for that one as well.

But for now – get yourself into nature for a walk

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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References

Sonja Sudimac, Vera Sale, Simone Kühn. 
How nature nurtures: Amygdala activity decreases as the result of a one-hour walk in nature
Molecular Psychiatry, 2022
DOI: 10.1038/s41380-022-01720-6

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Correcting Others Improves Group Learning

Correcting Others Improves Group Learning

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

learning education brain

Recently I reported on one conundrum of learning in groups: that of optimal group formation i.e. should you group learners with similar ability or diverging ability for the best average learning outcomes.

That question seems to have been resolved. However, there remain other questions such as how does group interaction affect learning?

A recently published study by Stephanie Halmo et al. of the University of Georgia has given us some interesting new insights into this.

To do this the researchers recorded the conversation of students in breakout groups in collaborative learning tasks. They analysed the conversation and identified a number of meta-cognitive statements that helped to move learning forward these included asking for clarification, checking that the discussions and reasoning was guiding towards the actual goals of the group, but also, importantly, of correcting other students.

This correcting of other students seems to be particularly important – not just for the person being corrected but the whole groups. It is likely also the most difficult to do because of politeness or fear of conflict – yet this shows this is precisely the most important thing to do and serves the collective.

Another interesting feature and one that is counter intuitive is that long periods of silence were also indicative of better learning – in this group work we may often think of talkative groups as being the most effective but the data showed otherwise.

There could be multiple reasons for this: lack of attention, lack of deep thought, a constant barrage of chatter, etc. It goes against our intuitions because if we see groups chatting a lot, we perceive high collaboration and therefore assume effective learning. This applies to the group itself as well as the educator guiding this learning.

So, all in when learning in groups, do interact, but be thoughtful, guide towards the goal, and do correct others when suitable. That will make group learning more effective. And I’ve certainly just learned something.

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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References

Stephanie M. Halmo, Emily K. Bremers, Sammantha Fuller, Julie Dangremond Stanton.
“Oh, that makes sense”: Social Metacognition in Small-Group Problem Solving.
CBE—Life Sciences Education, 2022; 21 (3)
DOI: 10.1187/cbe.22-01-0009

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Air Pollution In Childhood Changes Brain Structure

Air Pollution In Childhood Changes Brain Structure

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

pollution brain

I have reported previously on the negative impact of pollution on all things the brain – but most of these studies have focused on cognitive ability – with worrying consequences with one showing measurable differences 60 year later. Yup you read that correctly.
This study, just published, by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health gives us more worrying news. They analysed exposure to pollution in the womb and in the first 8.5 years of life of 3’515 children.

Air pollution exposure was estimated based on their living location during pregnancy and their first 8.5 years of life. The children then had their brains scanned between the ages pf 9 and 12.

What did they find?

They found that there was a change in what is known as white matter microstructure. White matter generally refers to the connections between different regions of the brain. This suggests a change in connectivity.

What the also found was a change in an area known as the Putamen – this is an important hub sitting deep in the brain and is involved in many functions including motor movement. It is also associated with various psychiatric disorders. In fact, it was found that the greater to exposure to fine particle matter the greater the decrease in size of the Putamen. Worrying indeed.

What was more surprising is that in many of these cases the exposure was below EU recommended levels – the EU has pretty strict guidelines for pollution showing that even modest level so pollution can have measurable impacts on brain structure – negatively that is.

So, if you’re already an adult, as I imagine you will be. Not much you can do. But you can be careful with your own children, or grandchildren.

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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References

Anne-Claire Binter, Michelle S.W. Kusters, Michiel A. van den Dries, Lucia Alonso, Małgorzata J. Lubczyńska, Gerard Hoek, Tonya White, Carmen Iñiguez, Henning Tiemeier, Mònica Guxens.
Air pollution, white matter microstructure, and brain volumes: Periods of susceptibility from pregnancy to preadolescence.
Environmental Pollution, 2022; 120109
DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2022.120109 

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Think Like a Kid to Learn Better?

Think Like a Kid to Learn Better?

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

children learning brain

Think like a kid may sound like a good piece of advice – the sort of thing a motivational speaker might importantly pronounce. But it may be harder than we can imagine – it might also help in some learning tasks according to some new research just published.

So, what precisely differs between adults and children when learning?

In this experiment the researchers from Ohio State University gave children between four and five years old and adults a visual identifying task. Fantastical creatures were shown on screens, and they were told that these could be categorised into two groups of “Flurps” and “Jalets”.  While doing this the participants wore eye tracking devices to identify where they were focusing attention.

The results showed firstly adults learned the classification quicker. This was due to adults focusing more and identifying key features – they then zoomed in on these features more quickly. The children’s eyes were much more random and roamed the screen and looked at more features more often. This led to them being slower to identify and categorise the Flurps and Jalets.

So, far this suggests that “think like an adult to learn better” is the message motivational speakers should be giving us. Somehow that is not quite so motivational. However, when the researchers switched the task mid-way though the identification tasks they noticed something different.

What the researcher then did was change the critical features that identified Flurps and Jalets. Kids were then much faster than adults to identify what had changed and change their categorisation whereas adults kept their focus on the previously known features.

This shows that kids’ brains and attention is much more exploratory and also random – this also means they are better at seeing more things and also at adapting to changing environments. Actually logical. Adults are better at focusing but worse when it comes to changing environments.

So, the hard bit is actually thinking like a kid – these kids seem to do it naturally as adults also focus naturally. The researchers note that adults can use broad attention, but it seems to require more effort. So, as you focus give some effort to unfocus your attention. It will help you learn better and more flexibly.

That is surely a good thing.

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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References

Nathaniel J. Blanco, Brandon M. Turner, Vladimir M. Sloutsky.
The benefits of immature cognitive control: How distributed attention guards against learning traps.
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2023; 226: 105548
DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2022.105548

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Those Who Distrust Humans, Trust AI

Those Who Distrust Humans, Trust AI

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

We probably all know someone who is extremely distrustful of fellow human beings. In fact, in some ways this has also become a feature I some countries’ political landscapes – deep distrust of the other.

So how do you get them to be more trustful – well the interesting thing that researchers have uncovered is that those who distrust humans most are more likely to trust AI more!

This was a part of study by researchers at Penn University – they recruited 676 participants to take part in a study in which they were told they were evaluating a new moderation tool for online content that helped to identify hate speech and suicide ideation.

Posts were then shown that had been flagged and they were told this had been flagged by a human, by AI, or by both. They then completed a survey on their individual differences which included distrust in others, political ideology, experience with technology, and trust in AI.

Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, those that most distrusted their fellow human beings trusted AI the most. This also included those who had a stronger conservative ideology. The converse also applied the more trust people had in human beings the less they trusted AI.

There was also a group of  “power” users, those with the most experience of technology and they trusted AI less – they though AI wouldn’t be able to tell the nuances of human language apart – they may be more aware of the limitations of AI than others.

So, who would have thought it but trust in AI and humans has a negative correlation and political ideologies also predict this!

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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References

Maria D. Molina, S. Shyam Sundar. 
Does distrust in humans predict greater trust in AI? Role of individual differences in user responses to content moderation
New Media & Society, 2022; 146144482211035
DOI: 10.1177/14614448221103534

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