Stressed? Unplug before you go outside

Stressed? Unplug before you go outside

You’re sick of sitting at your computer and decide to go outside for a break.

It’s a natural impulse, especially in these mild summer months, and it makes sense. Research shows being in nature helps restore your brain’s ability to focus.

But not if your nose is buried in your laptop or smartphone, says University of Illinois Professor William Sullivan, head of the Department of Landscape Architecture.

In a study published last week, Sullivan and two colleagues who are former UI graduate students — Bin Jiang, landscape architecture professor at the Blog PhotoUniversity of Hong Kong, and Rose Schmillen, who now works in Nashville — found that your brain doesn’t get the restorative benefits nature offers if you’re using electronic devices. Their findings were published in the journal Environment and Behavior.

The issue comes down to how we focus.

“Our capacity to pay attention is probably the most important resource that we have to function in the world today,” Sullivan said. “Everything we want to accomplish depends on it,” from learning to problem-solving to personal relationships.

But too much of it can make your brain tired.

When you focus on something — reading a book or writing a newspaper column, for instance — your brain has a mechanism that highlights whatever it is and filters out two important kinds of distractions:

— Things going on around you: a co-worker’s conversation, kids playing in the house, people walking by, music, interesting smells.

— The 10,000 thoughts in your head: errands you have to run, emails you have to answer, what you’re planning for dinner tonight.

Cool, right? But that mechanism gets fatigued with use, especially in this age of digital information overload and multi-tasking, which is very “mentally demanding,” Sullivan said. And that makes you tired, irritable and impulsive, and your focus tends to slip.

Psychologists call it “top-down attention” — actively paying attention to something.

The opposite is “bottom-up attention,” when something fascinating catches your eye — you look out a window at birds on a feeder, or watch a stunning waterfall or the flames in a campfire.

You don’t actively think, “I’m going to sit down and focus on this campfire,” Sullivan said. “It’s there, you find yourself sitting by it, you get completely absorbed and it’s effortless.”

And that gives your brain mechanism time to rest and recover, he said.

So that’s why taking a break makes sense. And dozens of studies around the globe have shown that exposure to green space helps people of all ages — from children to the elderly — recover from mental fatigue, he said.

It doesn’t have to be mountains or national parks. It can be a rain garden or well-designed urban landscape, he said.

“It can’t just be grass,” Sullivan said. “It needs to have trees. We need exposure to trees.”

A group of researchers from Philadelphia just published a study Friday showing that access to small green spaces built out of empty city lots can reduce symptoms of depression for people living nearby, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

Previous research by Sullivan and another doctoral student showed that even looking out a window at nature can help your brain.

Their 2016 study found that high school students performed better on tests if they were in a classroom with a view of a green landscape, rather than a windowless room or one with a view of a building or parking lot. They also recovered better from stress.

But the latest study by Sullivan and his colleagues suggests that it’s not enough to be in a green space if you’re still focused on answering emails or following social media. We’ve all seen people scrolling through their phones as they walk their dogs (who, me?) or push strollers around the neighborhood.

“If you’ve got your mobile device with you, you’re very likely not going to reap the benefits of being there,” Sullivan said.

The new study was prompted by a conversation two years ago between Sullivan and Jiang, who wondered whether the benefits of green space would hold up if people used mobile devices.

Schmillen went outside and returned with a dozen pictures of people sitting on the UI Quad and in other areas that would ordinarily help the brain recover from “the mental fatigue associated with being a student here,” Sullivan said. But they were all staring at laptops, iPads or smart phones.

So the researchers launched their study, dividing 81 participants among two types of locations on campus — green spaces and “barren spaces” with views of parking lots, buildings or walls — all with wireless internet access. Participants in each type of setting were randomly assigned to use their laptops or avoid all electronic devices for a 15-minute break.

Those with laptops were told they could not use their devices for work but could look at social media, news sites, YouTube, blogs, online games, online shopping or email unrelated to work.

Participants first took baseline attention tests indoors, then performed 10 minutes of cognitive activities such as proofreading and subtraction. They took another attention test immediately before the break and again after the 15-minute period was up.

There was no measurable difference in the performance of all the subjects — except for those who took a break in a green space without their laptops and phones, who showed “significant improvement,” Sullivan said.

For the rest, it was the equivalent of no break at all, he said.

Sullivan and his colleagues are now examining the brain pathways involved in attention with “functional magnetic resonance imaging,” or FMRI, working with researchers from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

“We’re looking at people’s brains and the function of exposure they get to green spaces. We’re trying to understand the effects on neural networks that support attention,” he said.Blog Photo

The findings so far are “promising,” and Sullivan said those FMRI studies will eventually look at the impact of mobile devices in that setting as well.

Elsewhere, several recent studies have linked prolonged cellphone and social media use to anxiety and depression as well as ADHD in adolescents.

So the next time you go outside for a break, smell the flowers, admire the hostas, listen to the birds — and leave the smartphone in your pocket.


Julie Wurth writes about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Contact her at 217-351-5226, or


Top: University of Illinois Professor William Sullivan, left,head of the Department of Landscape Architecture, and Bin Jiang, landscape architecture professor at the University of Hong Kong, co-authored the study with former UI graduate student Rose Schmillen, who now works in Nashville. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois

Bottom: The hosta garden in the UI Arboretum. Photo by Julie Wurth



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