The nature effect in motion: visual exposure to environmental scenes impacts cognitive load and human gait kinematics

Daria A Burtan*, Katie P Joyce, J Burn, T C Handy, S Ho, Ute B Leonards

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
163 Downloads (Pure)


Prolonged exposure to urban environments requires higher cognitive processing resources than exposure to nature environments, even if only visual cues are available. Here, we explored the moment-to-moment impact of environment type on visual cognitive processing load, measuring gait kinematics and reaction times. In Experiment 1, participants (n=20) walked toward nature and urban images projected in front of them, one image per walk, and rated each image for visual discomfort. Gait speed and step length decreased for exposure to urban as compared to nature scenes in line with gait changes observed during verbal cognitive load tasks. We teased apart factors that might contribute to cognitive load: image statistics and visual discomfort. Gait changes correlated with subjective ratings of visual discomfort and their interaction with environment but not with low-level image statistics. In Experiment 2, participants (n=45) performed a classic shape discrimination task with the same environmental scenes serving as task-irrelevant distractors. Shape discrimination was slower when urban scenes were presented, suggesting that it is harder to disengage attention from urban than from nature scenes. This provides converging evidence that increased cognitive demands posed by exposure to urban scenes can be measured with gait kinematics and reaction times even for short exposure times.
Original languageEnglish
Article number201100
Number of pages16
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jan 2021

Structured keywords

  • Cognitive Science
  • Visual Perception


  • gait
  • cognitive load
  • environment
  • visual discomfort
  • image statistics


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