“It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke.
You wake up with the sun - unexplainably happy, your dog/cat is exuberant, the coffee tastes wonderful, you feel playful, and you find yourself smiling on the way to work. The weather is pleasant, the sun is shining, everything is in bloom, and you know the desert will soon be full of adorable baby creatures. You are impervious to all the negativity that tries to pull you down a dark rabbit hole when you hear the news or look at your phone and social media accounts. Guess what? Spring is in the air, and it has you in its grasp. This is your brain on spring.
Spring brings light and longer days. Light activates specific cells in the retina which signal the hypothalamus, a region in the forebrain, to synchronize our circadian clock to the solar day, thus tracking seasonal changes. Complex connections of the hypothalamus with various parts of the brain then affect mood, cognition and behavior. More light can make people feel less depressed, more alert, cognitively better able to process tasks, and more energetic. Research has found that serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters closely linked to feelings of pleasure and positive affect, fluctuate in response to sunlight and the circadian shifts it induces.
Spring also brings warmer weather and less need to bundle up, which allows more skin exposure to the sun. Some experts believe that direct sun exposure boosts our vitamin D levels and also sets off a number of other physiological effects that improve mood, health, and functioning. And, for most people, spring means more time outdoors. While for some of us this may simply be time sitting on restaurant patios or walking between office buildings, many will venture beyond the urban environment or into gardens to connect with nature. There is ample evidence that spending time in nature improves people’s mental and cognitive health. In one study, University of Michigan students were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum, and the other half took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned, those who had walked among trees did 20% percent better when they took the test again. Those who had taken in city sights did not consistently improve.
Along with improving memory, time in natural environments also combats mental fatigue and gets your mind back to better attention and creativity. One study found that people's mental energy bounced back even when they just looked at pictures of nature. Pictures of city scenes had no such effect. Stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues may all be eased by time outdoors, especially when combined with exercise. Studies have found that walks outdoors are associated with decreased levels of anxiety and bad mood, and may even be useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments for major depressive disorder. Time outdoors in natural light also helps the seasonal affective symptoms many people report in winter.
So, let in the light, open the windows, get outside, make a garden or go find some wildflowers, pick up a new outdoor activity, set up a bird feeder or just take the dog for long walks. Let’s be grateful for yet another spring and enjoy it. Around here, you know summer is not far behind.
Post by: Nadia Fike
Read more: 1.Praschak-Rieder N, Willeit M, et al. Seasonal Variation in Human Brain Serotonin Transporter Binding. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(9):1072-1078. 2.Schertz K, Berman M. Understanding Nature and its cognitive benefits. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 28, No. 5, 2019. 3.Coventry P, Brown J, et al. Nature-based outdoor activities for mental and physical health: Systematic review and meta-analysis. SSM -Population Health, Volume 16, December 2021, 100934 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.10093