5 Ways Being In Nature Changes Your Brain, According To Science

by Sanam Yar and JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A woman goes for a hike. Being in nature can change your brain, science says
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Can you remember when you last spent quality time with some trees and grass? Research has long documented how spending time in the great outdoors (and not just to travel from point A to point B) can have numerous benefits for your overall well-being and mental health, and the field is only growing (no pun intended). A study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2018 found that even spending as little as five minutes outdoors was linked to a significant mood boost.

In the study, University of Regina students in Canada were assessed in a windowless lab room versus a nature group, where the students got to sit on a bench in “an urban park” on campus. Unsurprisingly, the bench-sitters who experienced five to 15 minutes in nature reported a “reliably improved” emotional state via a significant increase in positive and “self-transcendent” emotions. The amount of time they spent outside (five minutes versus 15) had no impact on results.

While traditionally millennials flocked to cities, that’s no excuse not to incorporate a little more fresh air into your life in order to reap the benefits. Fittingly, here are five ways that being in nature can affect your brain.


It Can Create Long-Lasting Boosts for Your Mental Health

A long-term study published in Environmental Science & Technology in 2014 found that, on average, people who moved to greener areas experienced an immediate improvement in mental health and less mental distress. The boost in mental health was also long-lasting, maintaining its effects even three years post-move. The study added to a growing body of evidence in support of integrating more green spaces like public parks in cities to improve public health.

“These findings are important for urban planners thinking about introducing new green spaces to our towns and cities, suggesting they could provide long-term and sustained benefits for local communities,” said lead researcher Dr. Ian Alcock in a statement.


It Can Help Decrease Activity in Areas of the Brain Linked to Depression

A study published in PNAS in 2015 found that participants who walked for 90 minutes through a green park on campus, versus strolling next to a loud nearby highway, exhibited “quieter” brains and dwelled less on the negative aspects of their lives (vs. how they felt pre-walk) in follow-up brain scans and questionnaires. They also experienced decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with depression. Basically, walking in nature was shown to have an almost immediate positive effect on overall mood.


It Can Boost Your All-Around Wellness

An in-depth analysis of 143 studies published in 2018 in Environmental Research, found that health benefits of green spaces on humans include improved heart rate and blood pressure, statistically significant reductions in cholesterol levels, improved sleep duration and neurological outcomes. They're also linked to reductions in the prevalence of type II diabetes, cardiovascular mortality, and overall mortality.


Different "Levels" of Nature May Have Different Effects

Depending on the “level” of nature you’re in, you may also reap varying benefits, according to a 2018 study published in Behavioral Sciences. The study had three “levels,” or settings: one level had wilderness-like characteristics, another location was closer to the greenery you’d find at a public park, and the final site represented a common "built environment" (like an indoor gym). The researchers found that visiting both green environments was helpful in decreasing physical and psychological markers of stress in participants, but the people in the wilderness setting reported the most significantly decreased levels of stress, relative to the other two groups. If you're looking to really make the most of your outdoor time, going for a hike or camping trip may be your best bet.


It May Help Improve Short-Term Attention Functioning

Inspired by a notable 2008 study published in Psychological Science that suggested seeing photos of nature may improve attention functioning in young adults, a 2014 study published in Experimental Aging Research found that executive attention visibly improved in both older adults (64 to 79 year olds) and university-aged subjects (18 to 25 year olds) after short exposure to photos of nature. Good news for city dwellers with less access to nature: the participants’ attention immediately prior to and after seeing the nature photos was measured, and the study found that seeing those pictures did improve short-term attention and memory in both age groups.

Considering that nearly 70% of the global population is projected to be living in urban areas by the year 2050, according to the UN, it's important to recognize the impact that even a few moments out in nature can have on peoples' overall well-being. Whether it involves planning a weekend camping trip, or simply going for a stroll outside during lunch, sneaking in some time outdoors is probably a good idea.

Studies cited:

Alcock, I., White, M. P., Wheeler, B. W., Fleming, L. E., & Depledge, M. H. (2014). Longitudinal effects on mental health of moving to greener and less green urban areas. Environmental science & technology, 48(2), 1247–1255.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological science, 19(12), 1207–1212.

Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(28), 8567–8572.

Ewert, A., & Chang, Y. (2018). Levels of Nature and Stress Response. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 8(5), 49.

Gamble, K. R., Howard, J. H., Jr, & Howard, D. V. (2014). Not just scenery: viewing nature pictures improves executive attention in older adults. Experimental aging research, 40(5), 513–530.

Neill, C., Gerard, J. & Arbuthnott, K. (2019) Nature contact and mood benefits: contact duration and mood type, The Journal of Positive Psychology,14:6, 756-767,DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2018.1557242

Stretton, J., Pope, R. A., Winston, G. P., Sidhu, M. K., Symms, M., Duncan, J. S., Koepp, M., Thompson, P. J., & Foong, J. (2015). Temporal lobe epilepsy and affective disorders: the role of the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex. Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry, 86(2), 144–151.

Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental research, 166, 628–637.

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