Your Brain on Nature
I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.
– John Burroughs
Most of us know the incredible power of being in Nature – wilderness, beaches, parks, gardens, – to recover a sense of inner peace, serenity, coming “home.” Many of us even get to indulge in hours, here and there, of quiet and solitude in nature, a temporary respite from the distractions and overwhelm of modern life.
I do encourage people to take a break and reset their brains by walking in a park or garden, even for a few minutes, whenever they feel overloaded. Switching the focus of our attention to a natural setting can refresh and renew us, quickly and reliably.
The science presented in Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness, and Vitality offers some fascinating evidence of why this is so. Dr. Eva Selhub and Dr. Alan Logan, of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Continuing Education respectively, offer comprehensive research studies and examples to answer the question:
“Throughout the ages, and across cultures, philosophers, poets, nature writers, and outdoor enthusiasts have extolled the mentally rejuvenating and uplifting power of nature. But what of the science? To what extent is the 2-million-year relationship with the natural environment imprinted on our neurons, and to what extent does nature immersion or deprivation work for or against the individual?”
The authors look at the effect of nature on mood (and mood disorders), memory, cognitive functioning, the mind-body interplay of mental and physical health, and the tremendous power of nature to antidote the “brain fog” we experience when we spend too much time on our modern digital devices.
They also plant their focus on the impact of nature on our own individual personal brain firmly in the context of the health of the planet that sustains all life, vitality, and well-being. Eco-psychology is emerging as a serious scientific discipline.
May you discover the many ways being in nature – walking in gardens, spending time in rooms filled with light, staying close to water, hearing sounds and smelling smells – can serve as a tonic for your brain, improving your mental health and sleep, as well as renewing your spirit and restoring your soul.
REFLECTIONS ON YOUR BRAIN ON NATURE
The authors offer terrific chapter and section headings: Green Exercise is Exercise Squared; Plants- The Vacuum Cleaner of the Air; Nature – a Vaccine against Road Rage; Gardening Changes the Brain for Life; Animal Empathy. To begin with wisdom we might already be familiar with:
“Walking is one of the most effective ways to keep the brain cognitively fit. In one study of 2,200 older males, walking two miles a day reduced the risk of dementia by half. And nature-based exercise provides a much-needed cognitive advantage in an overly distracting world.
“The notion that exercise is a medicinal agent for mind and body is scientifically sound. Exercise alters serotonin production in ways similar to antidepressant drugs and increases the production of nerve growth factors that facilitate normal brain cell structure and functioning. Exercise supports blood flow to the brain, which in turn encourages even further production of the chemicals that take care of our brain cells. Even a two hour walk through a forest can reduce chemicals linked to depression, cardiovascular disease, and inflammation.”
Adding the benefit of exercising outdoors:
“A forest offers a better training environment than the gym. Running outdoors v. on the treadmill at an equivalent duration is associated with less fatigue, less hostility, diminished anxious thoughts and more positive thoughts, and an overall feeling of invigoration. Many studies show that exercising outdoors trumps performance measures of indoor training.
“For example, in one study, a one-hour rural walk was more restorative to cognitive functioning and better improved mental outlook than an urban walk of the same duration. People with the highest levels of emotional stress to begin with had the highest gains in cognition and mood.”
Plants function as a vacuum cleaner for the air
“Trees (and petunias!) significantly lower the levels of airborne environmental pollutants, by up to 75%. Plant metabolize environmental chemicals and transport them to the soil where subsequent bacterial action can render them less harmful. NASA uses indoor potted plants to purify the air of chemicals from synthetic materials, thereby reducing respiratory and eye irritation.”
Road Rage Vaccine
“Being in nature can act as a “road rage vaccine” of sorts. Roadside vegetation reduces fatigue while driving and increases cognitive sharpness and tolerance of others. And…
“Smells enter the brain through intranasal pathways and enter into body-wide circulation; some stimulate, some sedate. Greenspace provides untold amounts of olfactory chemicals that balance mental outlook, both uplifting and relaxing the brain. The phytoncide produced from trees can lower the production of stress hormones, reduce anxiety, and increase the pain threshold; inhaling aromatic plant chemicals increases the antioxidant defense system in the human body. Rosemary has been proven to improve memory; peppermint and cinnamon seems to help bring folks back from the brink of road rage. Jasmine promotes sleep quality and increases alertness the following day.”
There is health in the garden. But because one has to dig for it, some persons prefer to keep on enjoying their old miserableness day after day and year after year….but those who are willing to exert themselves in an effort to get back the tone that life has lost to a considerable extent will find that work in the garden is a better tonic than our doctors have a record of in their pharmacopoeia.
– Eben E. Rexford
“Gardening maintains muscle strengthen and physical health through the aging process. Gardening can be quite significant exercise. For example, 30 minutes of setting up, planting, and watering a flower bed was found to be the metabolic equivalent of a pickup game of basketball over the same duration. In fact, the average time spend gardening is over 52 minutes. By way of comparison, the same studies indicated that leisure walkers or treadmill uses spend less than 30 minutes walking or using a treadmill. Gardening is a physical activity that promotes a sense of contentment and calm, while at the same time increasing energy levels.
“Enhanced cognitive functioning is yet another benefit gardening activities provide. Gardens presents cognitive challenges requiring memorization, visuospatial skills, and executive functioning. Using these cognitive attributes helps to palace a layer of protection against the forces of brain aging.
“In school gardening programs, hands-on gardening produces far better retention and assimilation of facts and skills related to the principles and practice of gardening than do classroom-only instruction. Connecting with the environment through gardening allows students to see the broad implications and meaning of their studies, leading to a better understanding of different scientific subjects. Gardening not only educates the head, the heart and the hand, but it aids in practical application of reading, writing and arithmetic. Gardening increases and develops the power of observation. It makes a person quick to grasp ideas and put these ideas into action. Boys and girls having gardens have been found to be more rapid in mental, physical and moral development. It opens up a source of revenue, creates a love of industry, and respect for property, and is often the beginning of better things.
“Studies show, both a 14-week school gardening program and a single academic-year gardening program elevated overall science achievement scores among elementary students, and brain-boosting effects of school gardens in factors that encourage broad problem solving. In the real world – academic and employment settings in particular – the ability to understand one’s actions and appreciate their implications and the ability to work in groups are key attributes to successful problem solving, to seeing things from another angle, and to communicating effectively. Although high test scores are academically desirable, the broader challenge in the real world is to apply, communicate, and collaborate with that knowledge A single academic-year gardening program has been show to enhance overall life skills, the ability to work in groups, and self-understanding when compared with a control group of elementary schoolchildren without hands-on gardening education.”
Then there are community gardens: “Community gardens have the potential to amplify these benefit because the health-associated benefits of the gardens go beyond “seeing green” per se. Community gardens have been shown to increase access to healthy produce and enhance overall quality of nutritional intake, physical activity, mental health, social cohesion, local ecology and sustainability. Community gardens are the path to individual, community, and environmental resilience.”
And when gardening programs are offered in institutional settings such as hospitals and prisons, gardening can “improve motivation, communication, grief processing, depressive thoughts, anxiety, sleep, psychosocial skills, self-esteem, stress reduction, and overall psychological well-being. The result of therapeutic horticulture programs are on a par with cognitive behavioral therapy and medications, significantly improves scores of depression. It’s the improvement in cognitive focus associated with gardening that predicts improvement in depressive symptoms. Gardening activates specific brain pathways while disengaging internal rumination. Gardening provides a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
With the continued diminishment of time spent in nature, animals take on a magnified role in the promotion of overall health, and mental health in particular.
– Eva Selhub and Alan Logan
“Pets fill social connectivity needs, promote well-being, and provide an additional layer of social support on top of the circle of human support. Pets have been shown to improve mental outlook and overall quality of life, diminish aggression and hyperactivity and improve energy levels.
“Studies show that people perform significantly better on stressful cognitive tasks when their pet is nearby. Even the simple act of petting a dog has been shown to reduce physiological markers of stress reactivity and improve immune system function. When health-care professional interact with a friendly dog for as little as five minutes, they experience significant reductions in the stress hormone cortisol. And individuals report themselves as more likely to disclose deeply personal information when the psychotherapist is in the presence of a dog.
Not to mention, interacting with dogs can cause an increase in the production of oxytocin. ” Oxytocin, a hormone-like peptide produced in the brain, is in many ways the elixir of positive psychology. It has been shown to facilitate social bonding, prosocial behavior, and empathy, decrease stress, improve mental outlook, turn down the dial on activity in the fear centers of the brain, enhance a sense of security trust, and pleasure, and lower the production of stress hormones. Interacting with animals can provide a lift to our own oxytocin levels, as well as those of the animals.
“This two-way street of oxytocin production may be at the heart of the human-animal bond, and given the direct social and personal health implications of oxytocin, it may provide physiological clues as to why pets promote mental health.
[Your Brain on Nature was published in 2012. The cover story of the May/June issue of Scientific American Mind is “Why We Love Pets and Why They Love Us,” exploring the similarities of brain functioning between ourselves and our pets, including the empathy and bonding fostered by the release of oxytocin in both ourselves and our pets. [See my June 4, 2015 post Human Brains – Pets’ Brains – Why We Love Our Pets and Why They Love Us]
It is becoming increasingly clear that experience with animals early in life leads to a more empathic brain later in life. A number of studies have shown that pet ownership (of dogs in particular) in childhood is positively linked with empathy during the early years, and it is also predictive of subsequent empathy in adulthood. Both school-based interventions involving humane educational sessions regarding animals and the presence of a dog in a classroom for three months have been shown to foster empathy.
Nature in the Age of Digital Devices
Then, for me, some of the most important research on the power of nature to heal the brain: nature can play and very important role in our mental health and well-being as alternative, even antidote, to the overstimulation we experience through our digital devices. I can wholeheartedly agree with the authors’ assessment:
“Information, regardless of its quality, is now emerging as a type of highly palatable food in its ability to fire up the dopamine reward neurons. Once the dopamine reward system is engaged, it will in turn further reinforce information seeking. In a sea of instant information and trivia, the info-rewards are numerous and at the ready to fire up the brain’s reward system. This explain a lot about why we can’t extract ourselves from our gadgets. It explains why taking a tech break is so difficult.
“Quite simply, that incoming text or unopened e-mail is like a tiny little gift wrapped up with a bow; it’s got your name on it, and it might just provide valuable information. And that latest news item on the extracurricular activities of a professional athlete or the marriage of a Hollywood celebrity is like a micro-bowl of delicious hot fudge sundae – so you read it. However, there’s never just one e-mail, one text, or one article to read; there are hundreds per day. The days of the odd viral video setting the web abuzz are gone; now there are countless daily viral videos. There is not just one celebrity scandal; there are hundreds, and there are thousands of blogs chronicling them, each with many reader comments for your review.
“This global village we have created offers far too many tiny little gifts wrapped up with bows. We are overloaded with information, and we struggle to separate information of actual value to us from that which is akin to junk food. The fast-food-style info merely provides a temporary feel-good fix in the form of a little jolt of dopamine in the reward centers of the brain.
“Rarely does the story of contemporary brain-boosting [through our digital devices] take into consideration the real-world cost of a little cognitive something called inhibition fatigue. Inhibition is a crucial brain regulatory function, the orchestra conductor of cognitive function that diverts brain energy stores away from distractions and toward important attentional tasks. In the modern world, with its multitude of distractions, the filtering systems need to work overtime to keep dampening down the influence of information excess. For example, in the screen-based world, the brain must work hard to eliminate the features of web pages that are of little relevance to the information that is being sought – toolbars, pop-ups, advertisements, irrelevant linked articles to the left and right of the main text.
“In addition to working harder in the face of ever-present distractions, the modern brain must also contend with an increasing number of routine decisions, thanks to very broad consumer choice. The overwhelming amount of choice we have in contemporary society calls for a tremendous amount of energy to run the pathways of executive functioning in the brain. These areas are involved in planning, abstract thinking, creativity, and so-called cognitive flexibility, and very importantly, they are the centers of that involve self-control. As a microcosm of choice, consider that in 1976 there were some 9,000 different items in North American supermarkets; today we have more than 40,000 unique items in an average-sized supermarket. Consider also the 100-plus channels available to the average cable TV-consuming household. – so many channels, what to watch? Research shows that we use up mental energy when faced with multiple options, and that the energy depletions is more pronounced in the areas of the brain that control our unhealthy cravings, so self-control diminishes – think overeating overspending, and indulging in impulsive, risky behavior. The tool for the greater demand to inhibition in the brain is an expensive one, and it will ultimately be paid in the form of inhibition fatigue. Researchers now commonly refer to this condition as directed attention fatigue.
“Nature itself might provide cognitive restoration via its ability to take the load off all the inhibitory effort required in our modern world. Natural environment are fascinating environments and, as such, they hold involuntary attention without requiring the expenditure of energy in the brain that would otherwise cause cognitive fatigue. The fascination afforded by natural environments ensures our survival by promoting mental clarity without requiring great amounts of energy. Immersion in nature can act as a low-cost brain booster.”
[Learn how in the first Stories to Learn From below]
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
Our perception of stress, our mental state, our immunity, our happiness, and our resilience are all chemically influenced by the nervous system and its response to the natural environment. It is no longer an option to write off the philosophers and poets as mere romantic dreamers. Scientific investigations reveal the brain is absolutely influenced by nature. [Our well-being] is dependent on the recognition and acceptance that nature is part of us.
– Eva Selhub and Alan Logan
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Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.
– Rachel Carson
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Truly it may be said that the outside of a mountain is good for the inside of a man.
– George Wherry
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Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done by jostling in the street.
– William Blake
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Positive emotions [such as we experience being in nature] can trump hassles. Researchers have shown that when it comes to a head-to-head face-off, it is the absence of positive emotions (versus the presence of negative emotions) that more accurately predicts ill health and even mortality.
– Eva Selhub and Alan Logan
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If you wish to know the divine, feel the wind on your face and the warm sun on your hand.
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Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
– Albert Einstein
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Greenspace is clearly a means of improving mental outlook and reducing the stress burden in the body. As such, it has long-term benefits in keeping the brain as sharp as possible through the aging process. Depression and low-grade stress are a corrosive force, a sort of rust that attacks brain cells, accelerating the normal pace of aging in the brain. Nature, on the other hand, has the potential to encourage the growth and continued reshaping of the brain cells throughout life, improving the brain’s so-called plasticity. There is every reason to suspect that nature, probably more effectively than a hand-held “brain game, can temper the degree of cognitive decline in urban settings as we age.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.
– John Muir
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
Your Brain on Nature presents story after story in the form of research study after research study about the impact of being in nature, even viewing scenes of nature, on the functioning of the brain. Some of the more compelling discoveries:
“In an elegant 2008 study published in Psychological Science, researchers induced mental fatigue with a series of challenging brain games designed to put pressure on voluntary attention. Immediately following a 35- minute period of intense experimental cognitive brain drain and testing, the subjects took a walk either in a lush park or on city streets. After the walk, the cognitive tests were repeated and the result showed a significant performance difference in favor of those who had spent time in nature.
“In a separate portion of the same study, researchers also confirmed that viewing photographic nature scenes improved scores of executive attention, which involves management of short-term memory and is essential for minimizing the interference of distracting side shows while on a task. In this study, the subjects experienced cognitive refreshment without changes in their mood per se. In other words, we cannot write off these mental gains provided by nature as simply an artifact of less anxiety and a more positive outlook. This finding points to a direct cognitive replenishment through nature experience. It suggest that beyond all the benefits to mood, nature also has the distinct ability to allow us to drive cognitively without applying the brakes. Nature, without wearing down the brake pads of inhibition (fascination and decreased demand for inhibitory energy) minimizes the directed attention fatigue. Someone may walk through an urban park, or spend time within it, not necessarily noting any significant change in mood, yet he or she is better equipped for the next big cognitive hurdle.”
And the studies are pouring in….
“Students with unobstructed views from their dorm rooms of nature – lakes and trees – outperform evenly matched students with obstructed or completely human-made (bricks and mortar) environments on objective measures of attention. Likewise, students with views of nature from their school cafeteria rather than walls and parking lots perform significantly better on standardized tests in reading, language proficiency and math. And spending time in nature seems to reduce symptoms of ADHD as effectively as the top two prescribed medications.”
“In recovering from illness and injury, patients whose rooms have an outdoor view to trees have significantly shorter hospital stays and few post-surgical complaints. They also use less potent painkillers – aspirin instead of narcotics. Even the presence of a dozen potted plants in the patient’s room has a significant effect on the patient’s recovery: lower pain levels, lower use of pain medications, lower blood pressure, less anxiety, along with higher energy levels and more positive thoughts. Even when we’re not sick, having plants in an office or workstation can reduce sick leave by up to 60%.”
“Viewing photographs of nature v. industrial scenes increases people’s feelings of affection, playfulness, friendliness and elation and decreases feelings of anger and aggression. Similarly, viewing scenes of nature increases alpha wave activity in the brain, increasing the production of serotonin, lowering blood pressure, reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lowering anxiety. Viewing scenes of nature seems to act like a visual valium; people recover from stressful events faster and report a more positive outlook than before.”
“Because viewing nature scenes activates the anterior cingulate and the insula, it strengthens the structures of the brain we use for empathy, emotional stability, and a positive mental outlook. Viewing urban scenes do not activate these brain structures in the same way at all. Viewing urban scenes does activate the amygdala, however, increasing the perception of threat and anxiety.”
“Potted plants in the vicinity of computer workstations reduces eye strain and operator fatigue and improves attention, thus concentration, mental processing, and manual dexterity, even improving mood and creativity.”
“Nature also seems to affect the expression of our core values. In a 2009 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers at the University of Rochester measured the impact of immersion in nature on both intrinsic motivations (personal growth, community, intimacy) and extrinsic motivations (fame, money, image) that influence important life decisions, judgments, perceptions, and overall direction in life.
“After viewing photographic images of natural environments (and separately, human-made city scenes) and imagining themselves immersed in those scenes for 8 minutes, subjects viewing the human-made city scenes placed a higher value on extrinsic rewards and were less altruistic, less likely to share resources with others. Subjects viewing the nature scenes placed a much higher value on prosocial goals and were more willing to give to others.
“Investigators then tested the aspirations of subjects and how they would divvy up money as they sat in one of two rooms, identical except for one feature: the presence or absence of vegetation. One room had two floor plants, one potted plant on a corner table, and one on the desk where the subjects were seated. The mere presence of four plants in a room produced a robust and significant elevation in intrinsic aspirations and subsequent generosity.
“This is a bit harder to explain than simply cultural learning; it indicates that something deeper is going on, something underappreciated in our techno-culture. The loss of 2 million years of evolutionary contact with nature may be damaging true connectivity to each other and to our planet.”
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
– John Muir
Eva Selhub tells of her work with Alex, a college junior, grades going down and social isolation increasing from spending too much time playing video games on his Xbox and not enough time outdoors or with friends. When she learned that he could remember moments of happiness hiking or skiing in the mountains, she “prescribed” walking 15 minutes a day in nature. After several months of walking every day in nature, Alex could concentrate better, his grades improved, and he began spending much more time with friends again, even playing Xbox games with them rather than alone.
One of the main prescriptions in Your Brain on Nature to improve brain health and functioning is to get more green exercise to correct our Vitamin G deficiency – lack of time in Greenspace. The authors offer some specific suggestions, based on research, that make it easier and more rewarding to restore the needed levels of Vitamin G.
1. Start low, go slow. Viewing exercise as a forceful and distasteful endeavor defeats it purpose. When people self-select the place and pace of their walking, they are much more likely to persevere and gain some real benefit.
2. Standard duration and intensity. There’s lots of agreement now: perform 30 minutes of moderate-intensity outdoor physical activity at least five days a week. Moderate physical activities are those that get the heart and breathing rates up a bit but don’t interfere with conversation.
3. Setting goals. 10,000 steps a day – five miles – is now the standard recommendation for physical and brain fitness. Yet mood elevation and anxiety reduction can be found with as little as 20 minutes of exercise; the short-term goal is incremental yet manageable progress in a graded fashion. This will assist in pushing you toward longer-term health goals
4. Honor your preferences. You’re more likely to stay with an exercise program if you’re doing what you want to do; some people swim; some people run. Choose an environment you will enjoy as well. A combination of green (lots of vegetation) and water (by a creek river, lake or ocean) has emerged as the most valuable exercise environment in terms of elevating mood and self-esteem.
5. Accountability. Draw up a scheduled plan with short- and long-term goals, then keep a record of what you do, including frequency, duration, and any pertinent notes on your mind-set associated with a particular exercise and its setting.
6. Assistance. Working with a coach, therapist, or exercise professional can help you stick to a schedule and problem solve to overcome barriers to exercising consistently. (I learned from reading this book that some eco-therapists conduct therapy sessions while walking within greenspace.)
7. Make time. Think of green exercise as an investment in yourself. Green exercise improves mood and vitality, busts fatigue, and decreases tension, stress, and anxiety. Green exercise is worth making time for.
8. Alone or together? Research supports both. Sometimes immersion in nature and contemplation while exercising solo is a cleansing activity; being alone is what is needed to charge your mental batteries. But there are times when exercise with a friend or a group can amplify the benefits by encouraging social connectivity [the single easiest factor in enhancing our well-being].
9. Mindfulness. Mindfulness is being present, being in the moment. It saves us from ourselves, taking us away from regretting the past or worrying about the future. Examining the detail within leaves, the variation in colors, the contours and ridges of tree bark, and countless others aspects of the environment that might otherwise escape our conscious thought is an act of mindfulness. Exercising in greenspace while consciously being mindful of nature affords an opportunity to get outside of your head.
10. Exercise snacks. Move and move often. When you need a break, instead of reaching for a cookie, gran an exercise snack. Get up from your office chair, walk for a few minutes or do some stretching, and look outside the window to get a glimpse of nature. Research has shown that the mental benefits of exercising in greenspace can be evident in as little as five minutes, even when exercising at a very light intensity.
Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness, and Vitality by Dr. Eva Selhub and Dr. Alan Logan. John Wiley & Sons Canada, 2012.
Blue Mind: The Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make Your Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do. by Wallace J. Nichols. Little Brown and Co., 2014
Two colleagues independently suggested this book about your brain on water when I mentioned I was writing this newsletter. Proximity to water can improve performance, increase calm, diminish anxiety and increase professional success.