Nature and WellbeingNature and Wellbeing

Many patients I work with speak of the value that nature plays in their lives and I can say that I also strongly relate to the value it plays in my own. Through personal experience and repeated accounts from others, I have seen how nature can improve moods, increase feelings of connectedness, and impact thought patterns. More recently, I often encourage my patients to increase their access to nature  as a way to increase self-care and help to manage  their moods.

I’ve started to wonder about and researching the science behind how nature impacts our brains. In the course of writing this post, I was happy to find there is quite a bit of research on the topic!

Research has shown that time in nature can positively affect areas of the brain related to rumination, negative emotions, and stress. Nature has also shown to be associated with increased creativity and performance abilities.

David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah found that,

“Measurements of stress hormones, respiration, heart rate, and sweating suggest that short doses of nature—or even pictures of the natural world—can calm people down and sharpen their performance (Williams, 2016).”

National Geographic’s article, “This is Your Brain on Nature” explores David Strayer’s research in more detail. They examine how nature enhances the ability of the prefrontal cortex to calm down, shifting from reactive decision making to more reflective thought and planning.

Further research conducted at Stanford by graduate student Gregory Bratman,  examines nature’s impact on the prefrontal cortex.

“The researchers found little difference in physiological conditions, but marked changes in the brain. Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment (Jordan 2013).”

Obviously, this research suggests that living in the city, away from nature, may have a negative impact on mental health. Highlighting the importance of finding opportunities to be in nature regardless of where you live.

While there is a need for continued research (we don’t know, for example, how much time needs to be spent in nature in order to impact your brain) these findings reinforce my own personal desire to get out into nature as much as possible!  I’m considering a hike on the weekend or maybe walking through a tree lined street to work!  What about you?

-Gina

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References

Jordan, R. (2015, June 30). Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription: Nature. http://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/

Reynolds, G. ( 2015, July 22). How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/?_r=0

Williams, F. (2016, January). This is Your Brain on Nature. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/