These past few days of record-setting temperatures have stirred mixed emotions for many of us. There’s the glory and gift of 4 days in a row of summer-like temperatures, along with the sinking feeling that this is not normal, and likely a byproduct of climate change. Because I couldn’t do anything about it in the moment, I chose to focus on how great it felt. I rode my bike outside 4 days in a row, and got a glimpse of my upcoming training season, which normally begins in April. I also was reminded of how wonderful and important it is to be outside, and wanted to share some fairly dramatic research of the cognitive effects that nature has upon us.
Go to http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/ for the full article.
You may have heard of nature-deficit disorder, which is a new phenomenon rampant in our device-obsessed culture. Much research has focused on ways that nature heals our over-stressed minds and bodies. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, has found that being in nature helps the “prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center to dial down and relax “. Our brains aren’t designed to be on high alert 24/7, or even all our waking hours. Studies have shown that city life and being disconnected from nature had substantial deleterious effects on our minds.
One particularly useful finding was that nature walkers showed less negative rumination than city walkers, in Stephen Bratman’s Stanford research study that scanned brains of 38 volunteers. Apparently, the subgenual prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain tied to depressive rumination, showed decreased activity when experiencing nature. The good news is that you don’t have to do a 3 day backpacking trip, which is where David Strayer did a lot of his research, to glean the positive effects of nature- Bratman’s subjects took walks of only 90 minutes’ duration.
Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, from the University of Michigan, found that even a 50 minute walk in nature improved executive attention skills, such as short term memory. Their thesis is that the calming visual elements of nature, such as bodies of water, mountains, trees and sky have the effect of a “soft fascination” which allows our brain to rest and wander, taking a break from everyday anxieties.
Even a 15 minute walk in the woods has been shown to have significant health benefits. A Japanese study recorded major physiological changes in forest walkers vs. city walkers. The nature walkers “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. ” The lead researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki believes our bodies “relax in pleasant, natural surroundings because they evolved there. Our senses are adapted to interpret information about plants and streams, he says, not traffic and high-rises.”
South Korea and Finland are two countries who are taking deliberate measures to increase its citizens’ contact with nature. Both countries have high rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide. In one study, Korean researchers used MRIs to examine brain images when viewing a variety of scenes. When brains viewed urban scenes and high-rises, they detected “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.” South Korea is now promoting more visits to national parks to take breaks from its culture of overwork. This public health effort has resulted in a 30% increase in visits to Korean National Parks between 2010 and 2013. There are 3 official “healing forests”, in the country, with many more being planned, employing trained “health rangers” who help people experience the benefits of nature.
In Finland, professors at the Natural Resources Institute “recommend a minimum nature dose of five hours a month—several short visits a week—to ward off the blues. A 40- to 50-minute walk seems to be enough for physiological changes and mood changes and probably for attention,” says Kalevi Korpela, a professor of psychology at the University of Tampere. He has helped design a half dozen “power trails”” where Finns focus their attention on natural elements to decrease their stress and improve mood.
Our own beloved National Park Service in the USA faces a backlog of $12 billion for maintenance and upkeep. The good news is that our national parks had record attendance in 2016, and its centennial celebrations were very well attended. In terms of general time spent in the great outdoors, only around 10% of teenagers spend time outside every day. A Harvard Public Health School study showed that adults spend about 5% of their time outside daily, which is less than the time spent in their cars. It seems we could benefit from public health policies like those in Finland and South Korea, so we can increase our focus on national parks and natural environments, instead of drilling in our last areas of wilderness and oceans.
The implications are clear: being in nature is excellent for our minds, as well as our bodies. These sunny days with mild temperatures are beckoning us outside. If you can’t get outside, you can situate yourselves in a room with a view. Even gazing at nature calms our brains, as evidenced by quicker healing rates of hospital patients in rooms with a view of gardens or trees.
Does anyone remember their mother telling them to “go out and play?” She was definitely on to something. Mom was wiser than we ever knew!