There is already a bevy of studies that prove spending time in nature has amazing health benefits. Spending micro-breaks outdoors can rejuvenate the brain. Kids who spend more time in green spaces have elevated cognitive functioning on tests and also enjoy lower stress levels. The list of ways that Mother Nature nurtures our minds is growing, with a study from last year addeing to the multitude of positive benefits we get from spending time outdoors.
The new study, by Stanford’s Gregory Bratman and several colleagues from the United States and Sweden, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, comes from the field of cognitive neuroscience. By scanning neural signatures in the brain after people spent time in nature (people in Japan refer to this as forest bathing), researchers found some interesting results.
Thirty-eight participants with “no history of mental disorder” were divided into two groups and asked to take a walk. One group walked for 90 minutes near the natural area of the Stanford campus, and the other group walked along a busy roadway (El Camino Real) in downtown Palo Alto, California.
Both before and after their walks, the participants answered a questionnaire designed to measure their tendency to ‘ruminate’ on negative self-talk, an inward pattern of thinking that often leads to depression. They also had brain scans before and after their walks, with emphasis on examination of the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the brain – which the study calls:
“an area that has been shown to be particularly active during the type of maladaptive, self-reflective thought and behavioral withdrawal that occurs during rumination.”
As you may have guessed, participants who took the 90-minute nature walk showed a decrease in rumination. The decrease was measured by how they answered the questionnaire and also by their brain scans, which showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex.
Gregory Bratman, the lead author of the study explained:
“This provides robust results for us that nature experience, even of a short duration, can decrease this pattern of thinking that is associated with the onset, in some cases, of mental illnesses like depression.”
The brain scans were particularly enlightening, as they enabled the researchers to measure cognitive change. Previously, scientists could only speculate about why or how being in nature is helpful for lessening depression and boosting cognitive functioning.
“That’s why we wanted to push and get at neural correlates of what’s happening,” said Bratman.
The study abstract itself ends with:
“This study reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”
Fifty percent of humanity now live in urban landscapes without green space. It looks like it’s time to change that.
Christina Sarich is a humanitarian and freelance writer helping you to Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.