You’ve probably experienced this firsthand that spending time in nature has a soothing effect that brings you a feeling of peace and calm. But did you know that walking in nature actually physically effects the workings of your brain and improves mental health?
Many studies have shown that city dwellers are far more prone to developing depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses compared to people who live near green, natural spaces. Further studies have even found that people who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward compared to people who have not recently been outside.
The question of why and how this occurs intrigued Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, who spent much of his time studying the psychological effects of urban living. Following his quest to learn more about this phenomenon, Bratman and his colleagues published a study where they found that volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier afterward than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic.
To delve even deeper into the findings, he published a new study that tried to examine the neurological mechanisms that underlie the effects of being outside in nature.
In order to determine the extent to which nature changes people’s minds, his team of researchers needed to track the activity of the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for brooding or morbid rumination. Brooding is a mental state in which you can’t seem to stop thinking about things that are wrong with you or your life.
The team gathered 38 healthy, adult city dwellers and had them complete a questionnaire that determined their level of morbid rumination. They also checked for brain activity in each volunteer’s subgenual prefrontal cortex before assigning half of them to walk for 90 minutes through a leafy, quiet, parklike portion of the Stanford campus and the other half through a loud, hectic, multi-lane highway in Palo Alto. Immediately after the walks came to an end, the volunteers returned to the lab and repeated both the questionnaire and the brain scan.
As expected, those volunteers who walked through the noisy landscape had the same or higher levels of morbid rumination, while the other group showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health.
The results speak for themselves. Get out into nature and make it a point to spend time in lush green environments as often as possible. You’ll be sure to thank yourself for it later.