take a walk in the park to ease brain fatigue

An every-day parade in Golden Gate Park.  (sketch by Heath Massey)

Typical Sunday traffic on JFK Drive. (sketch by Heath Massey)

It always amazes me how reliably a walk or a bicycle ride through Golden Gate Park can improve my mood, clear my mind, banish fatigue and increase my sense of well-being.  I don’t think I’m the only one who experiences these effects.   On a beautiful Sunday like today, when cars are barred from JFK Drive, it is thronged with bicyclists, joggers and walkers (with and without dogs) and most everybody seems to be in such good spirits.  But why?  Here’s a report on a study published last year that attempted to answer this question:

‘Scientists have known for some time that the human brain’s ability to stay calm and focused is limited and can be overwhelmed by the constant noise and hectic, jangling demands of city living, sometimes resulting in a condition informally known as brain fatigue. With brain fatigue, you are easily distracted, forgetful and mentally flighty — or, in other words, me. But an innovative new study from Scotland suggests that you can ease brain fatigue simply by strolling through a leafy park.

The idea that visiting green spaces like parks or tree-filled plazas lessens stress and improves concentration is not new. Researchers have long theorized that green spaces are calming, requiring less of our so-called directed mental attention than busy, urban streets do. Instead, natural settings invoke “soft fascination,” a beguiling term for quiet contemplation, during which directed attention is barely called upon and the brain can reset those overstretched resources and reduce mental fatigue.

But this theory, while agreeable, has been difficult to put to the test. Previous studies have found that people who live near trees and parks have lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their saliva than those who live primarily amid concrete, and that children with attention deficits tend to concentrate and perform better on cognitive tests after walking through parks or arboretums. More directly, scientists have brought volunteers into a lab, attached electrodes to their heads and shown them photographs of natural or urban scenes, and found that the brain wave readouts show that the volunteers are more calm and meditative when they view the natural scenes.

But it had not been possible to study the brains of people while they were actually outside, moving through the city and the parks. Or it wasn’t, until the recent development of a lightweight, portable version of the electroencephalogram, a technology that studies brain wave patterns.

For the new study, published this month in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh attached these new, portable EEGs to the scalps of 12 healthy young adults. The electrodes, hidden unobtrusively beneath an ordinary looking fabric cap, sent brain wave readings wirelessly to a laptop carried in a backpack by each volunteer.

The researchers, who had been studying the cognitive impacts of green spaces for some time, then sent each volunteer out on a short walk of about a mile and half that wound through three different sections of Edinburgh.

The first half mile or so took walkers through an older, historic shopping district, with fine, old buildings and plenty of pedestrians on the sidewalk, but only light vehicle traffic. The walkers then moved onto a path that led through a park-like setting for another half mile. Finally, they ended their walk strolling through a busy, commercial district, with heavy automobile traffic and concrete buildings.

The walkers had been told to move at their own speed, not to rush or dawdle. Most finished the walk in about 25 minutes. Throughout that time, the portable EEGs on their heads continued to feed information about brain wave patterns to the laptops they carried. Afterward, the researchers compared the read-outs, looking for wave patterns that they felt were related to measures of frustration, directed attention (which they called “engagement”), mental arousal and meditativeness or calm.

What they found confirmed the idea that green spaces lessen brain fatigue.

When the volunteers made their way through the urbanized, busy areas, particularly the heavily trafficked commercial district at the end of their walk, their brain wave patterns consistently showed that they were more aroused and frustrated than when they walked through the parkland, where brain-wave readings became more meditative. While traveling through the park, the walkers were mentally quieter.

Which is not to say that they weren’t paying attention, said Jenny Roe, a lecturer at Heriot-Watt’s School of the Built Environment, who oversaw the study. “Natural environments still engage” the brain, she said, but the attention demanded “is effortless. It’s called involuntary attention in psychology. It holds our attention while at the same time allowing scope for reflection,” and providing a palliative to the nonstop attentional demands of typical, city streets.

Of course, her study was small, more of a pilot study of the nifty new, portable EEG technology than a definitive examination of the cognitive effects of seeing green.

But even so, she said, the findings were consistent and strong and, from the viewpoint of those of us over-engaged in attention-hogging urban lives, valuable. The study suggests that, right about now, you should consider “taking a break from work,” Dr. Roe said, and “going for a walk in a green space or just sitting, or even viewing green spaces from your office window.” This is not unproductive lollygagging, Dr. Roe helpfully assured us. “It is likely to have a restorative effect and help with attention fatigue and stress recovery.”

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/27/easing-brain-fatigue-with-a-walk-in-the-park/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

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Tai Chi at Spreckels Lake in Golden Gate Park

Tai Chi @ Spreckels Lk

Tai Chi at Spreckels Lake, Golden Gate Park, Oct. 11, 2014 (sketches by Heath Massey)

Last Saturday morning at Spreckels Lake in Golden Gate Park I was mesmerized watching a Tai Chi class performing a graceful series of moves on a sandy peninsula that juts into the water.  The synchronized movements, reflected in the slightly wind-rufflled water, seemed to flow in widening ripples into the surrounding morning, radiating calm.  This class, led by Master Bill Chin and other experienced practitioners, is offered free of charge every Saturday and Sunday from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. in this idyllic setting.  Anyone can join;  beginners are encouraged to participate and learn by following along.  Advanced participants wearing red wristbands are interspersed among those less practiced.  The class ended while I was still sketching, but I’m planning to get there in time to join in next weekend.

http://www.reocities.com/WestHollywood/7078/taichi.html

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Artists in Golden Gate Park (talk)

" Landscaping Golden Gate Park," 1933, watercolor, David Park (FAMSF, Auchenbach Foundation)

” Landscaping Golden Gate Park,” 1933, watercolor, David Park (FAMSF, Auchenbach Foundation)

On Wednesday night (Sept. 24), I will be talking about “Artists in Golden Gate Park” at the Canessa Gallery (708 Montgomery St., San Francisco).  The talk begins at 7 pm and the gallery will be open before and after to view the wonderful exhibit of photographs by Stephen Kane:  Welcome to Fogland.  Hope to see you there.

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the apple press sculpture in golden gate park

Apple cider press statue in Golden Gate Park by Thomas Shields-Clarke, 1892 (sketch by Heath Massey)

Apple cider press statue in Golden Gate Park by Thomas Shields-Clarke, 1892 (sketch by Heath Massey)

For some reason I always assumed this sculpture was about wine.  That muscled, bare-footed figure evokes for me a beautiful Greek god (Dionysus, Greek god of wine?).  Even on a typical foggy day in the park, he conjures a warm day in late summer, the grape harvest, abandonment to the pleasures of the vine.   Wrong!   Those are actually apples scattered around the base of the sculpture, which actually depicts a cider press.  Perhaps that’s because the sculptor, Thomas Shields-Clarke was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where apples are no doubt much more common than grapes, especially in 1892 when this statue was made?  It was cast in Paris though, (by Jaboeuf and Bezout) so maybe that’s where it picked up the whiff of wine?  In any case, Michael de Young and the Midwinter Fair Commission purchased it and exhibited it at the Midwinter Fair in 1894.  It was originally a drinking fountain, but the metal cup that used to be attached by a chain disappeared long ago, along with the water.

Which set me to wondering about when and where public drinking fountains were invented.  Turns out modern, sanitary drinking fountains first appeared in public spaces in this country in the early 1900s and two inventors apparently share credit.  Halsey Taylor, in Ohio, developed a fountain prototype after his father died of typhoid, which he contracted after drinking contaminated water.  Around the same time Luther Haws, a part time plumber and sanitary inspector in Berkeley, developed a faucet designed for drinking after inspecting a public school and seeing children sharing a tin cup attached to a fountain.  The Halsey Taylor Company and the Haws Company are still prominent in the public drinking fountain business.

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Stephen Kane’s new photo exhibit

evite_combined_card

Steve Kane has a new photo exhibit opening tonight at Canessa Gallery.  Included are many beautiful photographs of Golden Gate Park.  I will be giving a talk on “Artists in Golden Gate Park” in conjunction with this exhibit on September 24 at 7 pm.  Hope to see some of you there.

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blackbird attacks pedestrians in Golden Gate Park

Brewer's Blackbird (sketch by Heath Massey)

Brewer’s Blackbird (sketch by Heath Massey)

A fairly common bird in Golden Gate Park, the Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) is easily recognizable by it’s bright yellow eyes and blue-black plumage.  The iridescent blue-green sheen of the male is gorgeous in the sunlight, belying the dull-sounding “blackbird.”  Often lined up on telephone wires or flying in flocks that gracefully rise and fall, these birds are well adapted to urban parks.  But sometimes they miscalculate.     Here’s a funny video of a Brewer’s blackbird defending an ill-considered choice of real estate in Golden Gate Park (near Stow Lake).  The video was made by Mila Zinkova in June, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qQcM9yytSI#t=27

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How tall was John McLaren?

Statue of John McLaren, Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

Statue of John McLaren, Golden Gate Park (sketch by Heath Massey)

The statue of John McLaren in Golden Gate Park is a little bit shorter than I am  (I’m just under 5’7″).  Is it life-sized, I wonder?  Somehow I always imagined John McLaren as a major physical presence, given the stories about the fear and trembling that he induced in his gardening staff.  (see former post: http://fromthethicket.com/2010/10/09/john-mclaren/) Come to think of it, though, the man depicted in the statue, although not tall, is actually quite intimidating.  Bald and portly, with military bearing and deep-set eyes fixed on a pine cone, he seems formidable.  I would hesitate to cross him.  Obviously stature is about much more than physical size.

 

 

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