Nature and the Brain: How Nature Makes Us Happier, Smarter and Kinder

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Studies show the positive impact nature has on our brains. So, what benefits can we be looking out for when we spend more time in nature, asks medical researcher and female health advocate, Dr. Emily Handley

While ongoing research demonstrates the profound positive impact nature has on our brains, we are increasingly living our lives indoors – with almost 90% of the day spent shut in, and up to 10 hours a day spent staring at a screen. Even more concerning: nature is declining globally at an unprecedented rate, as we deplete ecosystems at approximately 1.7 times faster than the planet’s regenerative capacity. While we continue to find a balance between our needs and conservation, spreading awareness of how nature can benefit us can also increase willingness to protect our environment.

The psychological benefits of nature 

Our psychological wellbeing is tightly linked to getting outside, promoting improved mental health and decreasing stress. Time spent in nature is a potent mood regulator, with even five minutes facilitating feelings of happiness and relaxation. Scientists think this is linked to a brain region called the amygdala: controlling our fight or flight response, mediating feelings of stress and perceiving threats in our environment. An hour of walking in nature can decrease activity in the amygdala, and the brain region is less active in people living closer to nature than in urban centers. Additionally, those living near green spaces tend to dwell less on negative aspects of life, as well as displaying decreased activity in brain regions associated with depression. The result? Increased happiness, greater mental and physical wellbeing, and even a stronger sense of purpose in life. And it’s not just us run-down adults that need a nature boost; children growing up in regions or neighbourhoods with more green space have a lowered lifelong risk of psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, substance abuse and eating disorders.

The increased sense of purpose being in nature can give us is linked to the concept of connectedness: feeling connected to others and to the world around us. This feeling is a huge protector against mental illness and negative moods, as connecting to nature can arguably be easier than connecting to other people in some circumstances. Experiencing connectedness to nature can be a predictor of improved overall happiness, as well as provide people with a clear self-concept; a way of understanding and valuing yourself and your place in the world. Disruptions to this feeling of connectedness can result in ruminations, where you dwell unnecessarily and for far too long on negative thoughts, ideas and feeling. Rumination is associated with anxiety and depression, and importantly, people walking in natural settings report decreased ruminations compared to those walking in urban centres.

The cognitive benefits of nature

 Nature doesn’t just make us happier; it can make us smarter too. Our executive function – mental skills including self-control, adaptive thinking and memory – can be boosted from simply seeing photos of nature, persisting even after people stop viewing images. This boost in cognition can be put to good use in designing school grounds: studies have shown green spaces at school improve cognitive development in children. The presence of nature at home can further help kids self-regulate their emotions and behaviours, while public housing in green neighborhoods leads to a better attention span. This increased attention can be seen even when looking at flowers on a roof for 40 seconds midway through a cognitive task, with better performance on these kinds of tests after looking at nature. Putting this increased attention to good use, multi-day hikers can solve 47% more puzzles compared to control groups of people waiting to start the same hike.   

So, in nature we’re both smarter and happier – and this has the flow-on effect of increasing our social cohesion. People watching videos of nature – in this study, of fishing – are more likely to cooperate with one another and to make sustainable choices when asked whether to keep fish or let them go. Children are also much more pro-social after visiting a nature park than they are compared to an aviation museum. Even people who experience self-reported social isolation have higher levels of well-being when living nearby nature. Social isolation can be a major predictor of poor overall health, particularly in the elderly, highlighting just how critical time in nature can be for our health over the lifespan.

The physical benefits of nature

It’s not just our brains that benefit from time in nature: the environment plays a role in our physical health. Exposure to green spaces can improve our heart rates; reduce cholesterol; reduce high blood pressure; and improve sleep. In research from Japan, “forest bathing” has been shown to reduce heart rate, elicit higher heart rate variability – indicating relaxation – and participants indicated feeling less anxiety than those in an urban setting.   

Why are we so impacted by nature? 

There are many theories as to why nature is so beneficial for humans. The biophilia hypothesis states that because we used to interact with and rely on nature so much, we are innately pushed to connect with our environment in a positive way. The stress reduction hypothesis states that nature triggers a physiological response linked to survival optimization that then lowers stress levels, while the attention restoration theory posits that because nature is full of complex lines and interactions, it simply teaches us to concentrate and hold our attention. It’s generally accepted though that nature restores our depleted attention, and eases our fatigue. Our modern-day routine using screens in any capacity works the ‘thinking’ parts of our brains, leading to reduced cognitive function, inattention and tiredness.  

But will any type of nature benefit us? Is the park down the road going to increase my attention span, or do we need to be seeking out the last of our remote wilderness? The greatest impacts have been seen after visiting green environments, with wilderness settings providing the greatest reductions in stress. The higher the wild or natural quality – linked to remoteness and protected wild areas – the more beneficial, especially when compared to areas with low biodiversity such as city parks. But those with reduced mobility, resources or illness shouldn’t fret: simply seeing nature via a video or virtual reality can increase positive emotions and assist with reflecting on problems. The sound of nature can help us too; people who listen to sounds like waves, wind in trees, or insects perform better on tests of cognition than those listening to urban sounds. And for the time-poor? It’s been found that people who spend two hours recreationally in nature a week have self-reported greater health and well-being. Importantly, this is the same when those two hours are spread throughout the week, or experienced at once. While most research has been conducted on green spaces, water lovers can rejoice: water environments or blue spaces may be slightly more beneficial for some people.

With a plethora of ways to get in your nature dose over the week, it’s an important aspect of a healthy life to prioritise. The takeaway message: get a daily dose of nature! With research showing that even a glimpse of a nature during our day can increase overall wellbeing, it’s worth finding time whenever you can to do connect to natural environments in whatever capacity you can.

Disclaimer: This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health, seek immediate medical attention.