The Brain on Nature

In today’s modern world, it’s widely accepted that most people aren’t doing enough physical exercise and are spending too long using screens and technology. One recent survey 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.

Public Health England's current recommendations for physical activity
Public Health England’s current recommendations for physical activity

Yes spending time outside is great but more specifically spending time in a forest.  Now I have long recognised that I tend to do much of my best thinking when I’m out walking in the woods, usually with my dog.  I thought it was down to the quietness and the ability to get away from the demands of the world but there may be more to it than that and the science is there to support it.

A 15-minute walk in the woods actually causes measurable changes in physiology according to  Japanese researchers at Chiba University who 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. 

In some countries governments are promoting nature experiences as a public health policy. In Finland, a country that struggles with high rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide, government-funded researchers asked thousands of people to rate their moods and stress levels after visiting both natural and urban areas. Based on that study and others, the Natural Resources Institute Finland 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.  

But being in the forest isn’t just good for the body, the mind also shows positive change. Korean researchers used functional MRI to watch brain activity in people viewing different images. 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.

If only here in Crowborough, we had access to a beautiful forest…wait a moment…

If you’d like to learn more about this, I can highly recommend a book called “The Brain on Nature” by  physician Eva Selhub and biophilosopher Alan C. Logan
Extracts taken from National Geographic article

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