How our brain can make use of nature to improve leadership skills.

By Nora Infante, Psyd

Prior to receiving my clinical psychology doctorate, I received a Master’s degree in Psycho-ecology, an academic discipline that studies the impact of decreased engagement with the natural world on psychological well-being and mental health.

The neuroscience of behavioral change informs my approach in coaching executives. It is now well known that brain functioning plays an essential role in dealing with daily professional and personal challenges.   Neuroscience teaches us that the brain’s “executive function” is the process that enables us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Research teaches us that executives with awareness of how their executive function works will perform more effectively and efficiently as leaders.

I often use mindfulness techniques  with my coaching clients to help them improve self-awareness and their ability to respond, not react, to situations. Training the mind to focus on the moment is the goal. This is the point where psycho-ecology enters the equation. When one is exposed to nature without any conscious instruction towards mindfulness one becomes effortlessly more mindful. Recent neuroscience research demonstrates that short periods of exposure to nature result in an individual becoming:

  1. less emotionally reactive,
  2. more empathic,
  3. more focused,
  4. more creative and
  5. more grounded.

Why is that?

Daniel Levitin, in his book The Organized Mind, explains that in order to achieve problem-solving, goal following, planning and multi-tasking the interplay of observation, selective attention, and inhibition is necessary. The problem is that our brains are not the sleek and efficient mechanisms we imagine. Quite the opposite. Our brains possesses only so much “cognitive fuel” which results in limitations on our voluntary attention span. When we push its limits we are prone to error and irritability. Today’s leader is bombarded with task switching and attention cramming details. All of this has an adverse impact on cognitive performance.

In a recent study titled “Attention Restoration Theory” (Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, University of Michigan), subjects reported that short sessions of nature viewing (either photographs or reality) helped them think more clearly and reduced their anxiety levels. In short, their mindfulness was enhanced and executive functions improved by these exposures to nature. Executives fret endlessly trying to determine how to prioritize tasks and not succumb to the internal running commentary of self-doubt that plagues many high performers. Neuroscience  now clearly suggests that being reminded of nature throughout the busy day helps push the reset button by lowering heart rate and increasing blood flow to that part of the brain controlling executive functioning.

So the next time you are preparing for a potentially stressful conversation, or you are tempted to react to a bothersome email, or anxious about a presentation, take a five minute walk outside. If circumstances don’t permit, find a window, focus on a point in nature, or at the very least spend five minutes looking at the most recent photographs in National Geographic! And feel yourself begin to relax!

For more insights on how the brain’s functioning can have a direct impact on your effectiveness at work, schedule a complimentary consultation with Nora.