Playing in the dirt may make you smarter

Playing in the dirt may make you smarter

Credit: AP / Ted S. Warren

Lola Dammann, 4, left, and Beulah Ellison-Tayor, 3, right, squish mud with their hands as they attend Cedarsong Nature School's outdoor preschool, Wednesday, May 5, 2010, on Vashon Island, near Seattle.

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by SUSAN WYATT / KING5.com

NWCN.com

Posted on May 25, 2010 at 11:00 AM

Updated Friday, Jan 4 at 10:44 AM

Get outside and get dirty – it could make you smarter.

A new study finds that naturally occurring bacteria in soil could enhance learning. And as a side benefit, it appears to be a natural anti-anxiety drug, but without the side-effects.

In studies presented Monday at the 110th general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Diego, mice exposed to Mycobacterium vaccae navigated a maze twice as fast, and with less anxiety, as control mice.

In a second experiment the bacteria were removed from the diet of the experimental mice and they were retested.  While the mice ran the maze slower than they did when they were ingesting the bacteria, on average they were still faster than the controls.

"The learning that occurred was profound," said Dorothy Matthews of The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, who conducted the research with her colleague Susan Jenks.

Matthews said it's interesting to speculate that creating learning environments in schools that include time outside where M. vaccae is present may decrease anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks.

She said she wouldn't recommend that people go out and deliberately try to ingest the organism.

"When we think about our history as human beings on the planet, for most of our history we were hunter-gatherers, moving around in the soil, following the tracks of animals. And recently we became agricultural as the climate allowed us to do so, but we were still interacting in a very strong way with nature, It's only been a 100 years or so that we moved into cities become disassociated with nature," she said.

"My advice to people who want to see if they could have this affect is to turn your TV off, shut the computer down, go for a walk in the woods, put a garden in, interact with nature in a real way," she said.

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