Just Go Outside: Your Brain Will Thank You

We’ve learned about the consequences associated with spending too much time indoors —looking at screens, in urban cities — so let’s examine the positive effects of nature on our psychological and emotional lives.

We’ve already discovered the link between increased rates of mental illness among individuals who live in cities (correlated with an overactive amygdala and cingulate cortex). This begs the question: does the opposite hold true? In other words, do people who live in or close to natural settings fare better in tests of mental health? The answer is, resoundingly, “Yes!” One longitudinal study conducted by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health found that over a five-year period, “Those who moved to greener areas had three years improved mental well-being for at least. It also showed that those who moved to more developed areas had an initial decline in mental health that returned to previous levels of well-being after the move.” The data was collected from over five thousand households.

But you don’t have to pack up and move to the countryside to experience some of nature’s psychological benefits — you could just take a long walk in nature. A study published by a Stanford researcher measured the participants’ “tendency toward ‘rumination’, a pattern of often negative, inward-directed thinking and questioning that has been tied to an increased risk of depression,” both before and after they took a ninety-minute walk, either in a natural setting or on a busy urban street. In the end, those who had taken nature walks “reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

Moreover, other studies reveal that, “Spending just 20 minutes in vegetation-rich nature has been shown to improve vitality. Given that vitality is defined in psychological lexicon as emotional strength in the face of internal and external oppositions, and living life with enthusiasm and zest, the implications for personal and planetary health are enormous.”

Finally, nature can be advantageous for our emotional health and well-being. Brain scans have revealed that, “When healthy adults view nature scenes rich in vegetation, areas of the brain associated with emotional stability, empathy, and love are more active. These same pathways are activated when a person looks at pictures of a loved one … These findings support previous investigations showing that nature scenes can enhance brain-wave activity in ways that are similar to the benefits of meditation.”

Different ideas have been proposed to explain the benefits associated with nature. One of the most promising is the E.O. Wilson’s “biophilia hypothesis,” which is based on the theory of evolution. It “suggests that we have an evolutionary yearning to be in natural environments and among other creatures due simply to where we ultimately come from, back in deep time.”

Perhaps the words of Osho are also applicable: “Look at the trees, look at the birds, look at the clouds, look at the stars … and if you have eyes you will be able to see that the whole existence is joyful. Everything is simply happy. Trees are happy for no reason; they are not going to become prime ministers or presidents and they are not going to become rich and they will never have any bank balance. Look at the flowers — for no reason. It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are.” Perhaps the trees and birds and clouds and stars are our greatest teachers, and when we immerse ourselves in nature, class is in session.

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