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Nature is good for Your Brain

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

~ John Muir.

I am driven to get out in nature routinely, even if just for a little while, and even on these blistering hot days. I have often wondered why. Well, acclaimed biologist E.O. Wilson proposes that contact with nature is a universal, basic human need, and not a matter of cultural or individual preference. Our brains evolved for living outdoors among plants and animals, near water sources, and using natural elements for refuge and resources. Obviously, we now inhabit very different, increasingly urban environments compared to the savannahs and wild spaces where our ancestors lived and evolved. Yet we are drawn to nature, and seek it out in wild lands, parks, green spaces, gardens, and even in print and on screens. And studies show there are physiological and neurobiological benefits to our interactions with nature.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”

~ John Burroughs

In Japan, people practice something called ‘shinrin-yoku’ or forest bathing. People head outside, to sit or walk leisurely and mindfully, and connect with nature, paying attention to all their senses. Studies show that this decreases levels of stress hormones and lowers pulse rate and blood pressure. There is also growing evidence that exposure to nature has a profound impact on our brains and behavior. It helps reduce stress and anxiety; improves attention and memory; enhances flexible thinking and creativity; and increases kind, generous and moral behavior.

Neurobiological studies are exploring the brain basis of these benefits. A recent fMRI study showed that a 90-minute walk in nature decreased self-reported rumination as well as activity in a part of the prefrontal cortex known to be associated with rumination, whereas there was no change after an urban walk of the same duration.

Another fMRI study of stress-related brain regions showed decreased activation of the amygdala (which is associated with stress and fear responses) in subjects who took a one hour walk in nature vs those who walked in an urban setting. EEG recording in subjects as they walked for 25 minutes through an urban green space showed readings indicating lower arousal levels and the kind of brain activity seen in mind-wandering, which is a brain state known to enhance creativity. Don’t forget nature has inspired many creative giants of literature, art and music - think Thoreau, Van Gogh or Vivaldi, for example.

“The earth has music for those who listen.” ~ William Shakespeare

It remains unclear what it is about contact with nature that does all of this. Is it the beauty, the sense of wonder, the scale of natural things, open space, the scents in the air, the variety of plant and animal life? One factor may be the removal of stresses associated with urban, hyper-connected, tech-heavy lives which tax our attention, and create tension and cognitive overload. Scientists have not yet compared benefits of nature exposure to those of sleep or meditation on similar measures of stress and attention. We also don’t know the optimal duration or type of exposure to nature to get positive effects and change behavior. But it appears, it may not take very long. In one experiment, participants staring up a grove of very tall trees for as little as one minute had measurable increases in feelings of awe, and demonstrated more helpful behavior and more ethical approaches to moral dilemmas than participants who spent the same amount of time looking up at a high building.

So, what are you doing sitting here reading this? Get thee to nature! You could head to the mountains for forest bathing or try a brief break to step outside for a desert bath. Remember to breathe, slow down, engage all your senses, and then let your mind wander.

“Leave the road. Take the trails.” ~ Pythagoras

Post by: Nadia Fike

Read More: 1. Jimenez, Marcia P., et al. Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 May; 18(9): 4790. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18094790 2. Piff, Paul K., et al. Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2015, Vol. 108, No. 6, 883–899 3. Song, C., et al. Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy: A Review of the Research in Japan. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016 Aug; 13(8): 781. doi: 10.3390/ijerph13080781


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