Just Go Outside — Your Brain Will Thank You

go outside

You may have heard a lot lately about the consequences associated with spending too much time indoors — as many of us have been tied to our screens in urban cities — so it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the positive effects that nature has on our psychological and emotional lives.

Research has found associations 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, with data from over 5,000 households, found that over a five-year period, research participants who had moved to greener areas displayed improved mental well-being for at least of a three-year period. Of great interest, is that for people who had moved to cities and reported a decline in their mental well-being, once they moved from cities into more rural areas — their mental health returned to their previous levels before their initial move.

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 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences measured the participant tendency toward “rumination,” which is a pattern of often negative thinking that is associated with an increased risk of depression, before and after they took a 90-minute walk, either in a natural setting or on a busy urban street. Those who had taken nature walks reported lower levels of rumination and reduced neural activity in brain areas linked with risk of mental illness, as compared to people who walked through an urban environment. The take-away is the importance of having accessible natural areas in our increasingly urbanized world for our mental health and overall well-being.

Moreover, in a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Dr. Richard Ryan and his colleagues found 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. According to Alan C. Logan, co-author of “Your Brain On Nature,” brain imaging has 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.”

go outside

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. Wilson contended that we have a evolutionarily-driven desire to exist in natural environments, which has been passed down to us today due to the millions of years that the human species survived and thrived in natural environments.

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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Tags: 2021 Possibilities

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