Why Your Brain Needs Nature

Scientific research further proves the powerful relationship between mental health and Mother Nature.

We know that a camping trip eases the mind, but to what extent? While it's easy to experience the power of nature, scientists and researchers across the globe are finding ways to explain this divine phenomenon. Most recent evidence comes from David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist specializing in attention, who has found proof that spending time in nature helps to enhances the senses and makes us happier, smarter people. In order to conduct his research, Strayer took 22 of his psychology students out into the wild canyons of Bluff, Utah. Imagine a scene from a spaghetti western; Bluff is a series of red mountains and plateaus, the blue sky painted across the horizon like a watercolor. It's hard to imagine that this place couldn't relax you. Still, Strayer wanted proof.  The plan was to use the EEG, or a series of electrodes, to measure the midline frontal theta waves of the campers, and then compare them to volunteers who spent time in more industrial setting. If Strayer's hypothesis was right, the campers would experience less energy coming from the frontal theta waves.  On the third day of the trip, Strayer and his students began to experience what he calls the “three-day effect.”  To visualize it, imagine a bunch of relaxed campers sitting around a fire as they prepare a meal. At this point of the camping trip, everyone had been given ample time to unwind and appreciate the natural surroundings, leading to a “cleaning of the mental windshield.”   National Geographic elaborates on the experiment:

Strayer’s hypothesis is that being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center, to dial down and rest, like an overused muscle. If he’s right, the EEG will show less energy coming from “midline frontal theta waves”—a measure of conceptual thinking and sustained attention. He’ll compare our brain waves with those of similar volunteers who are sitting in a lab or hanging out at a parking lot in downtown Salt Lake City.

And Strayer isn’t the only one conducting this sort of experiment. Scientists all over the world are looking into the divine power of nature. English researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School most recently collected mental health data from 10,000 participants dwelling in an urban location. The analysis of this data revealed that those living closer to a natural environment reported less mental distress, even with income, education, and employment factors being taken into consideration. Other studies illustrate lower stress hormones and better heart and metabolic health in those who live closer to a green space. Even skeptics are beginning to buy into the power of nature. Richard Mitchell, for instance, teaches epidemiology at the University of Glasglow, and originally believed that exercise was the reason behind the increased brain power. But his research illustrated that people who lived near parks experienced the benefits of exercise, regardless of whether or not they actually used the green space. Whether it’s the fresh air or the vivid shades of greenery, it’s getting harder and harder to deny the healing properties of Mother Earth. And it couldn’t be coming at a better time. National Geographic continues:

"All this evidence for the benefits of nature s 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."

Humans aren’t taking advantage of their natural surroundings. Nisbet credits this to the modern perspective on achieving happiness. Rather than explore the outdoors, we tend to seek relief in material possessions or online distractions. Luckily, it looks like things are starting to change. Healing forests, such as the Saneum Healing Forest near Seuol, offer visitors a variety of activities to help them rekindle a relationship with the natural world.  They might spend the afternoon hiking, engaged in an outdoor yoga session, or creating art projects with dried flowers.  Other “natural healing” programs, conferences, and communities are also popping up throughout the rest of the world, including a communal mud pit located in the town of Louisa, Virginia. There's more. If sharpened senses and a relaxed mind weren’t enough, further research from Stanford’s Greg Bratman says that nature has the power to make us nicer to ourselves.  Strayer’s research proves how nature affects higher order problem solving. By reflecting on natural beauty, we allow ourselves to enter a more reflective mindset, allowing the brain to make unexpected connections. At the end of Strayer’s camping experiment, he found that the beauty of Bluff had in fact soothed the prefrontal cortex, allowing the mind to slip into a more relaxed state. His campers' theta signals were lower than those tested of city-dwellers, which help proves Strayer's hypothesis. It’s no surprise; have you seen those cliffs?amanda-kohr Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel.  She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at amandakohr.com and through Instagram.