Marc Berman - December 2015 Meeting Topic

Marc G. Berman, Ph.D.

Director, Environmental Neuroscience Laboratory

The University of Chicago

Our lab is interested in quantifying the impact of the physical and social environment on brain and behavior.  One of the environments that we are most interested in is the natural environment.  In our laboratory, we have performed studies showing that brief walks in nature (e.g., a local park) can improve memory and attention performance by 20% relative to walking in more urban environments (e.g., busy urban streets; Berman et al., 2008; 2012).  In fact, benefits can even be attained simply from viewing pictures of nature vs. urban environments (Berman et al., 2008).  This work is based on Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which posits that attention can be divided into effortful directed attention (i.e., the attention you use at work) vs. more effortless involuntary attention (i.e., attention that is automatically captured by interesting stimulation in the environment; Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan & Berman 2010).  According to ART, if one can find environments that do not place many demands on directed attention, while simultaneously having interesting stimulation in the environment that captures involuntary attention one will replenish directed-attention resources.  Nature is one example of such an environment, though one could imagine some built environments that meet these criteria (e.g, museums, quiet city streets with beautiful architecture).        

Based on the fact that simply viewing pictures of nature can be beneficial, we have begun to decompose natural and urban scenes into their low-level visual features to uncover the features that predict how subjectively natural a scene is (Berman et al., 2014a) and how liked it is (Kardan et al., 2015a).  With this knowledge we are beginning to manipulate these features to test, for example, if an image has more curved edges, like in nature, if that leads to greater memory and attention improvements.  At a more population based level we are examining how neighborhood greenspace (as measured with satellite imagery), in a large urban center, is related to health, controlling for SES factors.  We are finding that planting 10-11 more trees on the street significantly improves health perception and significantly decreases cardio-metabolic diseases, independent of income and education levels (Kardan et al., 2015b).

In related work we are very interested in brain networks and how the efficiency of brain networks is related to self-control (Berman et al., 2013).  We find that individuals with “better” self-control have more efficient brain networks compared to individuals with poorer self-control (Berman et al., 2013).  Related to this work, we are quantifying how brain network dynamics are related to depression (Berman et al., 2014b) and the worry related to a cancer diagnosis (Churchill et al., 2014).

We are currently using eye-tracking measures to examine how peoples’ eye-movements may differ when viewing natural vs. man-made scenes, and also measuring the brains’ response to these environments more directly with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  Lastly, we are interested in gene by environment interactions and how genetic factors may impact one’s response to different natural and urban environments.  In conclusion, our lab is interested in how different physical environments affect brain and behavior and how we can use these results to influence the design of the built environment in ways to improve human health and well being.      



Berman, M. G., Hout, M. C., Kardan, O., Hunter, M. R., Yourganov, G., Henderson, J. M., ... & Jonides, J. (2014a). The Perception of Naturalness Correlates with Low-Level Visual Features of Environmental Scenes. PloS one,9(12).

Berman, M.G., Mišić, B., Buschkuehl, M., Kross, E., Deldin, P.J., Peltier, S., Jaeggi, S.M., Vakorin, V., McIntosh, A.R., & Jonides, J. (2014b). “Does resting-state connectivity reflect depressive rumination? A tale of two analyses” NeuroImage. 103:267–279

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological science19(12), 1207-1212.

Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., ... & Jonides, J. (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of affective disorders140(3), 300-305.

Berman, M.G., Yourganov, G., Askren, M.K., Ayduk, O., Casey, B.J.,  Gotlib, I.H., Kross, E., McIntosh, A.R.,  Strother, S.C., Wilson, N.L., Zayas, V., Mischel, W.,  Shoda, Y., & Jonides, J. (2013). “Dimensionality of brain networks linked to life long individual differences in self-control.” Nature Communications 4(1373)

Churchill, N.W., Askren, M.K., Reuter-Lorenz, P.A., Peltier, S., Jung, M.S., Cimprich, B., & Berman, M.G. (2014).  “Scale-free brain dynamics under physical and psychological distress: pre-treatment effects in women diagnosed with breast cancer” Human Brain Mapping 36(3); 1077-1092

Kaplan, S. (1995). The Restorative Benefits of Nature - Toward an Integrative Framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

Kaplan, S., & Berman, M. G. (2010). Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(1), 43-57.

Kardan, O., Demiralp, E., Karimi, H., Hout, M., Hunter, M.R., Yourganov, G., Hanayik, T., Jonides, J. & Berman, M.G. (2015a). Low-level image features predict aesthetic preference beyond semantic preference in natural vs. man-made scenes.  Frontiers in Psychology

Kardan, O., Gozdyra, P., Misic, B., Moola, F., Palmer, L., Paus, T. & Berman, M.G. (2015b). Neighborhood greenspace and health in a large urban center.  Scientific Reports