This is How Nature Impacts Our Brain
There’s perhaps not a soul who haven’t felt refreshed after a hike through a wood, or sitting for some time in a park. Greenery and nature have a healing effect on our mind – that’s old news. But what’s new is that science too agrees, and several studies have confirmed the significant impact nature has on our body and specifically our brain.
And yet trees and greenery are disappearing by the second all over the world. The world’s air, soil, and water are polluted, species are dying out, and the climate is changing. A lot of the blame for this goes to this planet’s human residents. Ironically, all these things have long-term effect on the human body, and specifically the human brain.
5th June is World Environment Day, and let’s take this opportunity to talk about the amazing things our natural environment does to our brain.
It lowers the risk of Depression
A recent Stanford University study has found that exposure to nature can significantly reduce the risk of Depression, and can act as relief for those with the condition. The study had two groups of participants taking a 90 minute walk through a crowded urban street and a wooded area. There was no physiological difference between the two groups after the walk, except in their brains. The group that walked in nature had significantly reduced activity in a brain region called the subgenual prefrontal cortex. This is the area that control ruminations or repetition of negative thoughts and emotions in our brains – a process that can lead to Depression. The group that walked in the urban setting on the other hand experienced no such changes.
It has executive attention-restoring benefits
Struggling with focus lately? Take a walk in the woods. Urban settings in which we live are overloaded with stimuli and information, and our focus is constantly grabbed by one thing or the other. As a result, our attention spans get shorter, because our directed attention abilities are working overtime and pulled at too many directions. Nature restores this ability.
A recent study by the University of Michigan found that even a 10 minute walk through natural environments like a park or wooded area can sharpen your attention directing abilities. Urban setting stimuli capture our attention in a top-down way, by forcing our attention to them. Natural settings on the other hand have mellower and more intriguing stimuli, that don’t force your attention but allow you to seek things out – a bottom-up attention process. This gives you time to rest and replenish your overworked executive attention abilities.
It relieves anxiety and improves overall mental health
How often do you feel like you have too much on your plate in a day? One of the biggest problems with modern living is its pace – the world and technology develops too fast and the human brain struggles to cope. Anxiety and a sense of feeling overwhelmed is a very common feature of our lives. Our experience of Time is relative, and the more work we have to do, the quicker time passes for us.
Spending time in nature helps gain perspective on our lives. Recent researches in neuroscience suggest we experience Time differently while in natural surroundings. Instead of micro-focusing on tasks and stimuli, we get a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves. This has been observed to alleviate feelings of anxiety and inadequacy that are so common these days. Just 5 minutes in green wooded spaces can make you feel calmer, and moving to an area with natural greenspaces can boost your overall mental health in the long-term.
Helps creativity and problem-solving
A 2012 study found that an immersive experience in nature boosts our creativity and problem solving skills by a whopping 50%. The study had the participants take a 4-day camping trip in the wild without any technological gadgets. Some participants were set a problem-solving test before the trip started; the other group took the same test on the last day of the trip. The latter group performed exceptionally better. A break from technological convenience devices combined with calming effect of natural surroundings sharpens and improves our cognitive abilities significantly.
We tend to forget that nature is not just a ‘part’ of the world we inhabit, it is the world. Studies after studies are linking mental health and cognitive problems to the shrinking natural spaces all over the world. Protecting the environment is not just our duty, our survival depends on it as well.