December 14, 2015

This Is Your Brain on Nature

Florence Williams

It’s amazing how things change. I’m so inspired by the science emerging to reinforce what outdoors people, and probably our grandparents, know and knew naturally; it’s healthy to get outside. This is a link to the full article published by National Geographic, complete with beyond beautiful and powerful images shot by a friend of mine, Lucas Foglia. Below are just a couple excerpts from the article in case you want to get the gist of what it’s about.

Even if you are already a nature lover/outdoorsy-type I recommend reading this article. It provides a glimpse into an inspiring and hopeful movement that’s growing. As science and mainstream culture finally catch up with the rest of us tree-huggers we can begin to work more easily towards a culture that values the natural world, and understands the necessity of staying connected to the wild out there— and the wild within.

—Dashielle Vawter


Excerpts from:

This Is Your Brain on Nature

Story by Florence Williams
Photographs by Lucas Foglia


“A 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology. Japanese researchers led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University sent 84 subjects to stroll in seven different forests, while the same number of volunteers walked around city centers. The forest walkers hit a relaxation jackpot: Overall they showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate. Miyazaki believes our bodies relax in pleasant, natural surroundings because they evolved there. Our senses are adapted to interpret in- formation about plants and streams, he says, not traffic and high-rises.

All this evidence for the benefits of nature is pouring in at a time when disconnection from it is pervasive, says Lisa Nisbet, a psychology professor at Canada’s Trent University. We love our state and national parks, but per capita visits have been declining since the dawn of email. So have visits to the backyard. One recent Nature Conservancy poll found that only about 10 percent of American teens spend time outside every day. According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, American adults spend less time outdoors than they do inside vehicles—less than 5 percent of their day.”


Kiddos in the snow

Another excerpt:

“When the volunteers were looking at urban scenes, their brains showed more blood flow in the amygdala, which processes fear and anxiety. In contrast, the natural scenes lit up the anterior cingulate and the insula—areas associated with empathy and altruism. Maybe nature makes us nicer as well as calmer.

It may also make us nicer to ourselves. Stanford researcher Greg Bratman and his colleagues scanned the brains of 38 volunteers before and after they walked for 90 minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street in downtown Palo Alto. The nature walkers, but not the city walkers, showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain tied to depressive rumination—and from their own reports, the nature walkers beat themselves up less. Bratman believes that being outside in a pleasant environment (not the kind where you’re getting eaten alive by gnats or pummeled by hail) takes us outside of ourselves in a good way. Nature, he says, may influence “how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.”



Another excerpt:

“A few years ago, for example, in an experiment similar to Bratman’s, Stephen Kaplan and his colleagues found that a 50-minute walk in an arboretum improved executive attention skills, such as short-term memory, while walking along a city street did not. “Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost,” the researchers wrote in their paper. It exists, they continued, and it’s called “interacting with nature.”


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