How the Modern Workplace Hurts Your Brain

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If you've ever looked around at the three walls of your cube and wanted to scream, join the club. Working all day, inside, in a windowless man-made square isn't natural. In the new book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (featured in an Atlantic article this week), author Nikil Saval suggests that while it's an improvement upon factory work and manual labor, the current American workspace works against everything it's trying to achieve: focused, productive, and happy employees.

The issue can be boiled down to the absence of nature."We often think of ourselves as different from animals, but we evolved to live in nature," says Eva Selhub, M.D., coauthor of Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature's Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality. "Being removed from that is highly unnatural and stressful to the brain and body." The sensory deprivation from working in bland indoor environments takes a major toll on higher-order cognitive functioning like our ability to solve problems, create, and think, Stephen Kellert, Ph.D., author of Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World adds.

There's even a word, biophilia, which describes the fact that we're innately programmed to affiliate with nature. And fortunately, more companies are adopting "biophilic design" with more natural light, plants, and earth-based materials. But even if your company isn't, you can still boost your creativity, productivity, self-esteem-and even your fitness-while at work.

1. Bring in plants. People with shrubbery in their office report greater job satisfaction and happiness than those who work sans greenery, report researchers at Texas State University. Another study by researchers in Norway found that office vegetation helps your brain recharge throughout the day.

2. Change your desktop photo. "Bring a photograph of yourself on a beach or in nature into your office," Selhub says. "When you look at it, your mind remembers that experience of being in nature and physiologically reduces your stress response."

3. Take a walk in the park. A University of Michigan study found that performance on memory and attention tests improved by 20 percent after people walked through an arboretum. Walking down a busy street in town? That produced no cognitive boost.

4. Bring your workout outdoors. People who walked on an outdoor track chose a faster pace, yet rated their exertion lower than those walking on a treadmill, according to a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. And in a different study of more than 800 adults, researchers found that exercising in natural environments resulted in greater increases in energy and decreased tension, anger, and depression than sweating indoors. If possible, hit the pavement in the a.m.-a new Northwestern University study suggests that people who soak in most of their daily sunlight exposure in the morning have lower BMIs than those who spend more time outdoors later in the day.

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