How Environments Influence Well Being

Path through Pines - photo by Chris Smith
Path through Pines – photo by Chris Smith

Can science measure happiness? One of the things our Neuroscience Laboratory does here at the University of Chicago is measure the impact of both physical and social environments on brain and behavior. One of the environments that we are most interested in is the natural environment. In our laboratory, we have performed studies showing that brief walks in nature (e.g., a local park) can improve memory and attention performance 20% more than the same walk on a busy urban street (Berman et al., 2008; 2012). In fact, we can enjoy greater benefits to our well being just by looking at pictures of nature, rather than pictures from urban environments (Berman et al., 2008).

This work is based on Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which posits that attention can be divided into effortful directed attention (i.e., the attention you use at work) and more effortless involuntary attention (i.e., attention that is automatically captured by interesting stimulation in the environment; Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan & Berman 2010). According to ART, environments that don’t require that you pay constant attention to them but do capture your involuntary attention in some way actually end up replenishing your memory and attention resources. Nature is an example of one such environment that replenishes direct-attention resources, though some built environments, such as museums or quiet city streets with beautiful architecture, can also help restore you in this way.

Indeed, simply viewing pictures of nature can be good for you. With this in mind, we have begun looking at the simplest low-level visual elements present in natural and urban scenes in order to identify features that predict how subjectively “natural” a scene is (Berman et al., 2014a) and how attractive people will find it (Kardan et al., 2015a). With this knowledge we are beginning to manipulate these features in order to test whether an image with more curved edges, such as would be found in nature, would result in greater memory and attention improvements for subjects viewing it. At a larger, more population based level, we are examining how neighborhood greenspace in a large urban center (as measured with satellite imagery) is related to health, controlling for SES factors. We are finding that planting 10-11 more trees on the street significantly improves health perception and significantly decreases cardio-metabolic diseases, independent of income and education levels (Kardan et al., 2015b).

We are currently using eye-tracking measures to examine how peoples’ eye-movements may differ when viewing natural vs. man-made scenes, and also measuring the brains’ response to these environments more directly with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Lastly, we are interested in gene by environment interactions, looking at how genetic factors may impact one’s response to different natural and urban environments. Ultimately our lab is interested in how different physical environments affect brain and behavior and how we can use these results to influence built environment designs in ways that improve human health and well being.

Marc G. Berman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Director, Environmental Neuroscience Laboratory, at the University of Chicago and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.


Berman, M. G., Hout, M. C., Kardan, O., Hunter, M. R., Yourganov, G., Henderson, J. M., … & Jonides, J. (2014a). “The Perception of Naturalness Correlates with Low-Level Visual Features of Environmental Scenes”. PloS one,9(12).

Berman, M.G., Mišić, B., Buschkuehl, M., Kross, E., Deldin, P.J., Peltier, S., Jaeggi, S.M., Vakorin, V., McIntosh, A.R., & Jonides, J. (2014b). “Does resting-state connectivity reflect depressive rumination? A tale of two analyses.” NeuroImage. 103:267–279

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). “The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature“. Psychological science19(12), 1207-1212.

Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., … & Jonides, J. (2012). “Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression.” Journal of affective disorders140(3), 300-305.

Berman, M.G., Yourganov, G., Askren, M.K., Ayduk, O., Casey, B.J., Gotlib, I.H., Kross, E., McIntosh, A.R., Strother, S.C., Wilson, N.L., Zayas, V., Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Jonides, J. (2013). “Dimensionality of brain networks linked to life long individual differences in self-control.” Nature Communications 4(1373)

Churchill, N.W., Askren, M.K., Reuter-Lorenz, P.A., Peltier, S., Jung, M.S., Cimprich, B., & Berman, M.G. (2014). “Scale-free brain dynamics under physical and psychological distress: pre-treatment effects in women diagnosed with breast cancer.” Human Brain Mapping 36(3); 1077-1092

Kaplan, S. (1995). “The Restorative Benefits of Nature – Toward an Integrative Framework“. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

Kaplan, S., & Berman, M. G. (2010). “Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation“. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(1), 43-57.

Kardan, O., Demiralp, E., Karimi, H., Hout, M., Hunter, M.R., Yourganov, G., Hanayik, T., Jonides, J. & Berman, M.G. (2015a). “Low-level image features predict aesthetic preference beyond semantic preference in natural vs. man-made scenes“. Frontiers in Psychology

Kardan, O., Gozdyra, P., Misic, B., Moola, F., Palmer, L., Paus, T. & Berman, M.G. (2015b). “Neighborhood greenspace and health in a large urban center“. Scientific Reports