Research Article

Measuring affect and complex working memory in natural and urban environments

Publication Date:

Authors: Emily E. Scott, Kaedyn W. Crabtree, Amy S. McDonnell, Sara LoTemplio, Glen D. McNay and David L. Strayer


Introduction: Research suggests that spending time in natural environments is associated with cognitive and affective benefits, while increased use of technology and time spent in urban environments are associated with depletion of cognitive resources and an increasing prevalence of mental illness. Attention Restoration Theory suggests that exposure to natural environments can restore depleted attentional resources and thereby improve cognitive functioning and mood. Specifically, recent meta-analyses have revealed that the most improved cognitive abilities after nature exposure include selective attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

Methods: While existing studies examined these cognitive abilities, few have examined the Operation Span (OSPAN), a complex measure of working memory capacity. Therefore, the current study (N = 100) compared performance on the OSPAN and self-reported mood using the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule before and after a 30-min walk in a natural or urban environment.

Results: Results from the study showed that both groups exhibited an increase in positive affect and a decrease in negative affect, suggesting that going outside for a walk can boost mood regardless of environment type. Inconsistent with past work, there were no significant changes in OSPAN scores before and after the walk for either environment type.

Discussion: Future studies should analyze how the length of time spent in the environment, certain characteristics of the environment, and individual differences in connectedness to nature may impact attention restoration to gain insight on nature’s ability to improve our affect and cognition.