Who hasn’t sworn by the rejuvenating effects of a brisk walk through a park or a quiet hike through the woods? It’s one of those things we generally agree on: nature has a healing effect on our mind. And science agrees. Multiple studies have confirmed the significant impact nature has on our bodies. Here are four amazing side effects nature has on our brain.
- It lowers the risk of Depression
One of the areas of the brain associated with increased activity and risk to mental illness, including depression, is the subgenual prefrontal cortex, or sgPFC. High neural activity levels in the sgPFC lead to rumination, a cognitive behavioral process where we repetitively reinforce negative thoughts and emotions. Individuals both at risk for depression and experiencing symptoms of depression are more likely to self-report having difficulty disengaging from these negative thoughts and emotions, and have tested higher sgPFC levels of neural activity.
A study out of Stanford sought out to test the effects of nature on the body and the brain. They had two groups of participants take a ninety-minute walk. One group walked through an urban area while the other traversed through a wooded path. Afterwards, various physiological responses were tested and recorded. Differences in physical body functions tested relatively the same between the two groups. But when researchers focused on changes in the brain, they found a significant change in only one of the groups.
In the group that walked through nature, the neural activity levels in the sgPFC were greatly reduced. They also self-reported feeling more optimistic — both in their thoughts and their overall emotional state — after completing their walk. The group that walked in the urban setting showed no decreased sgPFC neural activity and reported feeling the same mentally and emotionally.
Their findings support the hypothesis that exposure to nature can significantly reduce the risk of depression and that being immersed in a natural environment can offer relief from symptoms of depression.
2. It sharpens your focus
If you live in an urban area, you’re constantly surrounded in a stimulus overload. Objects full of attention-grabbing information are everywhere. Billboards, signs, buildings, people, roadways all full of written, verbal, and non-verbal cues bombard our senses. As a result, we learn to filter a lot of our environment out. The problem is, our attention span and ability to focus also gets filtered, leading to a significant decline in both.
The University of Michigan conducted a study exploring the effects of nature on our ability to focus. They found taking a walk, even as short as ten minutes, though a natural environment such as a park can sharpen your attention span and hone your focus.
When we walk through an urban area, the stimuli around us forces our attention into what’s called a top-down focus. Essentially we start with the biggest stimuli, taking those in before working our way down to the details. The problem is we tend to dismiss these big picture items quickly, never exercising our brain to work down to the details. When we need to use this detail-oriented processing, it’s more difficult for us to access, leading to us being easily distracted and unable to focus.
Nature has the exact opposite effect on our brains. The stimuli in nature tends to be quieter. The details are the more prevalent objects of interest, which forces our brain to slow down and take in our surroundings in a more methodical way. This is called bottom-up processing, where instead of starting with the big picture, we begin to assess our environment through the details.
By recharging our brain and using this bottom-up processing more, we are able to rest the areas of our brain constantly using the top-down processing. This means when we need to make big picture decisions, our brains will be refreshed and able to process faster. It also means we are able to focus on the details and get more work done all around.
3. It improves overall mental health
One of the biggest problems with modern living today is the pace. The world moves incredibly fast, with technology developing even faster, and the human brain often struggles to keep up. Feeling overwhelmed has become a common feature in our daily lives, which unfortunately leads to heightened levels of stress and anxiety.
A lot of this breaks down to time and how our brains perceive it. Time, as Einstein summarized, is relative. Our brain computes time based on tasks. What we have to do, what we want to do, what we have completed. The more work we do, the faster time seems to pass, adding to the feeling that we don’t have enough time to complete the tasks in our often overwhelming workload.
Research in the field of neuroscience suggests we experience time differently when surrounded by nature. Instead of focusing on tasks and stimuli, our minds are able to relax in the slower and more tranquil setting nature provides. We get a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves — and our to-do list.
In addition to this bigger picture perspective, there are fewer harsh stimulants in nature. We breathe deeper, stabilizing our heart rates and slowing our minds. This helps us relax, reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our brain, which helps alleviate our anxiety. As little as five minutes in a green environment can help us feel calmer, and moving into areas with large, natural green spaces can boost our overall mental health over the long-term.
4. Boosts creativity & problem-solving cognition
In 2012, a study found that immersive experience in nature boosts our higher-level cognitive processes, directly impacting things like creativity and problem-solving skills. Participants were given a set of test problems specifically aimed at creative problem-solving. For example, they were given a set of words and asked to find the unifying word tying them all together. After four days, they were given the test again and researchers found their answers were improved by a whopping 50%.
These findings have been duplicated in subsequent studies. In 2013, a study measured levels of cognitive functioning after walking through a city park. They found after twenty-five minutes the prefrontal cortex was calmer. When the prefrontal cortex is quiet, our brain’s default network is able to take over, allowing ideas and insights to come forward.
In order to best reap these benefits, it’s important to leave all technological devices behind and allow yourself to focus on the calming effect of the natural surroundings.
As our urban areas expand, it becomes easier to spend less and less time in nature. Numerous studies are linked to mental health and cognitive problems declining as our natural spaces all over the world shrink. The more time we spend in nature our cognitive processes get sharper and faster. Quick walks, short visits to parks, and planning hikes in nearby areas are perfect ways to boost your brain health.