Neurocognitive fatigue, restoration, and resilience—effects of natural vs. urban environments (postdoctoral grant)

PI: Cecilia Stenfors, cecilia.stenfors@ki.se

Research suggests that our higher cognitive functions—the so-called executive functions—and their neural systems can be fatigued. They are sensitive to stress, emotional processes, and long-term overstimulation. Moreover, different environments can have different effects on restorative processes and mental health. In particular, exposure to natural environments has been associated with health benefits, stress reduction, and better performance on executive cognitive tasks, whereas urban environments have been associated with worse mental health, cognitive and emotional fatigue, and a higher abundance of certain stressors. However, much remains to be learned about 1) the extent of these patterns of associations between the external environment on the one hand and mental well-being and cognitive performance capacity on the other and 2) the mechanisms behind the associations.

The aim of this postdoctoral research project is to investigate the effects of natural and urban environments on neurocognitive and emotional resilience, fatigue, and restoration processes. Specifically, I will investigate how exposure to different types of environments affects emotional states, cognitive performance (measured via standardized cognitive tests), brain functioning (measured via functional magnetic resonance imaging), and resilience to stressors. I will also investigate the dependence or independence of effects at these different levels. A further aim is to investigate population-based dose-response effects of differential exposure and access to natural environments (measured via geographic information systems data) on mental and cognitive health outcomes.

The proposed project will provide new information about how the external environment and individual factors affect neurocognitive and emotional fatigue, restoration, and resilience. Such information is essential for creating optimal conditions for cognitive functioning, mental health, social and work life participation, and productivity and for preventing poor mental health and suboptimal cognitive functioning in people of all ages.

The project is funded by the Swedish Research Council and is performed at the Environmental Neuroscience Lab, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago in collaboration with Marc Berman and at the Aging Research Center at Karolinska Institute in collaboration with Jonas Persson.