Do Physical Surroundings Influence Our Thoughts?
Recent research suggests that they can.
Posted November 3, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- The thoughts of individuals vary based on the type of environment they are in.
- Being in a natural space leads to more positive and less impulsive thoughts.
- Also, fundamental visual features of an environment can affect what we think about.
The field of environmental psychology has long demonstrated that elements of our physical environment can impact our emotional states, our cognitive functioning, our physiological states, and even our social behavior. But how does where affect what we think about?
While we might have observed that our thoughts jump from one topic to another as we go about our daily lives, it may not be so obvious that the content of our thoughts is directly affected by our surroundings. Recent research led by Kate Schertz has demonstrated just that in a paper recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Schertz, currently a postdoc at the University of Michigan, completed this study while working in Marc Berman's Environmental Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago. In this study, individuals living in Chicago were taken to two different environments, the popular Water Tower Place mall in downtown Chicago and the Garfield Park Conservatory, a beautiful indoor garden space; participants responded to questions every 20 minutes as they walked through these two locations.
Schertz and her colleagues found that, when people were in the nature conservatory, their thoughts were more positive and more exciting, and focused more on things that happened in the past. In contrast, when these same individuals were walking through the mall, their thoughts were more future-oriented. The researchers also replicated some of the major findings of the benefits of natural environments, more positive emotional states, and better performance on a cognitively demanding task were found in the conservatory over the mall.
Schertz added that “We weren’t surprised to see that participants had more positive thoughts in the conservatory, given that they also had more positive feelings, but it was nice to observe alignment between the two.”
They also found that people felt more impulsive during the walk in the mall. However, it’s not clear whether or not that would be true in other built environments. Schertz mentioned that “Malls are particularly designed to encourage buying things. We found that feelings of both impulsive buying and general impulsivity increased in the mall but these may have been accentuated by the commercial nature of the environment.”
While it’s less studied than some of nature’s other benefits, this isn’t the first time that researchers have noted that our environments affect how we think. For example, one study (Bratman et al., 2015) found that people tend to engage in less negative rumination while walking in natural environments versus urban environments, an important finding, particularly for those who might seek nature-based therapy to deal with depression and anxiety.
What may be more surprising is that even the simple (“low-level”) visual features of our environments affect the content of our thoughts. In another series of studies by Schertz and her colleagues (Schertz et al., 2018; 2020), they analyzed journal entries that were completed in different parks around the US, then used a topic modeling approach that looks for general “themes” that emerge from the journal entries. Subsequently, they fed images of these parks into a program that can break down the images into their fundamental visual features (things like hue, saturation, straight edges, and curved edges).
By relating the topics from the journals to the visual features of the pictures, Schertz found that the topic of nature was, perhaps unsurprisingly, related to visual features that are most commonly seen in nature. More interestingly, she found that curved (or non-straight) edges were associated with people writing more about the topic of spirituality and life’s journey. Subsequent studies found that this effect replicates even when images are scrambled into semantically meaningless images, as long as they have a lot of non-straight edges.
The mechanisms are not yet clear, but Schertz has some ideas on why this might be the case, stating that “Other researchers had previously seen that curved objects caused less fear, curved paths are seen as more organic and engaging, and that non-linear motion is associated with calmness. These types of reactions, either conscious or subconscious, may be playing a role in leading people to think more deeply about their lives. But more research is needed to directly test these ideas.”
Admittedly, not everyone may want to look at scrambled images of curved edges to generate thoughts of spirituality, but these findings support something crucial and underappreciated about our cognition—where we are, and what our environment looks like, can influence the topics that arise in our minds.
And while more work is needed to see how other types of environments might affect our thoughts, it might be worth seeking out nature near you if you’d like to improve your mental state and nudge your thoughts to be more positive and exciting.
Schertz, K. E., Bowman, J. E., Kotabe, H. P., Layden, E. A., Zhen, J., Lakhtakia, T., Lyu, M., Paraschos, O. A., Van Hedger, S. C., Rim, N. W., Vohs, K. D., & Berman, M. G. (2022). Environmental influences on affect and cognition: A study of natural and commercial semi-public spaces. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 83, 101852.
Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(28), 8567–8572.
Schertz, K. E., Sachdeva, S., Kardan, O., Kotabe, H. P., Wolf, K. L., & Berman, M. G. (2018). A thought in the park: The influence of naturalness and low-level visual features on expressed thoughts. Cognition, 174, 82–93.
Schertz, K. E., Kardan, O., & Berman, M. G. (2020). Visual features influence thought content in the absence of overt semantic information. Attention, Perception & Psychophysics. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-020-02121-z