Alternatives to Cognitive Enhancing Drugs? Art and Nature.


Whether you are a college student cramming for a final exam or a teenager with ADHD, the important of maintaining a healthy and cognitively fine-tuned brain can never be underestimated.


But what is the best way to improve our attention and our ability to retain information?

So far psychopharmacology has had the most influential impact on how we treat those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Drugs like adderall are also becoming a common cognitive enhancer amongst college students.

Some doctors believe these psychostimulants are getting abused. Studies have shown how similar drugs such as modafinil boost dopamine levels in the brain, which in return cause a greater chance of an individual getting addicted to the drug later in life.

Surely there can be better ways of improving our brain-functioning than having to depend on pills? Of course there are some individuals who have a chemical imbalance, but that isn’t typically how psychiatrists diagnose a patient with ADHD – it is only their justification for resorting to pills as proper medical treatment instead of probing deeper into why children today are suffering from these poor attention skills.


For example, how do we know the rise of ADHD is not due to the environmental factors of living in an industrialized, overstimulating society? Surely these kinds of factors can affect our brain chemistry, but it doesn’t mean that our brain chemistry was the origins of the disorder.

If I am right – and I am certainly not the first person to bring up this idea nor will I be the last – then changing our living habits and our environment may be a much better and long-lasting cognitive enhancer than resorting to the temporary solutions that drugs typically offer.

One study by Berman, Jonides, and Kaplan (2008) (pdf), tested the effects of different environments on attention and found:

    “Attention Restoration Theory (ART) provides an analysis of the kinds of environments that lead to improvements in directed-attention abilities. Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative. We present two experiments that show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities as measured with a backwards digit-span task and the Attention Network Task, thus validating Attention Restoration Theory.”

PsyBlog reports that when participants went for a nature walk they did 20% better on a memory test then participants who took a walk through a busy city.

With knowledge like this why wouldn’t we try changing some of our living habits? These studies have implications that can affect everyone: students, those with ADHD or Alzheimers disease, and even your regular Joe and Jane. It is important that we find some space and time to spend with nature, especially if we are typically accustomed to the busy reality of our industrialized world.

Why not visit a local park one afternoon, do your homework in the nature preserve, or spend the weekend hiking in the Catskill Mountains? For some of us winter is right around the corner so we should have a good incentive to go outside while it is still nice. Your Xbox 360 and Macbook will still be there when you get back.

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