There are new studies every year that suggest that escaping the city and getting back to nature is good for your health. On the surface, this seems like a pretty obvious situation, but new research from Stanford University is showing that getting outdoors isn’t just good for the soul – it is great for your brain.
Gregory Bratman, along with colleagues from the US and Sweden, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the effects of spending time in a natural setting. Bratman’s cognitive neuroscience study not only measured experiences but also the corresponding brain scans. The research involved taking 38 participants that had “no history of mental disorder,” and dividing them into two groups. One group took a 90-minute walk through a natural area near the Stanford campus, and the other group walked down a busy street in Palo Alto, California. Both groups then answered a written questionnaire designed to measure their tendencies towards negative inward-thinking (rumination), like “My attention is often focused on aspects of myself I wish I’d stop thinking about,” and “I spend a great deal of time thinking back over my embarrassing or disappointing moments.”
Before and after their walks, both groups also had their brains scanned. The researchers were particularly interested in the region of the brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex. According to the researchers, this is “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.”
What the researchers found was that people who took the walk in the natural areas showed an actual decrease in rumination. They also answered the questionnaire completely differently than the people that walked down a busy street. The brain scans that were done on both groups backed up the results of the questionnaire, as well. According to Bratman, the lead author of the study, “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.”
There has been plenty of psychological research done on the effects of spending time in a natural setting, but with the added evidence of the brain scans, there is now actual physical evidence as well. “That’s why we wanted to push and get at neural correlates of what’s happening,” said Bratman.
The reason that the study find these findings so important is, according to Bratman, “We just passed the halfway point recently where 50 percent of humanity lives in urban areas. Along with this trend comes a decrease in nature and nature experience.” The urbanized percentage of humanity is projected to be 70 percent by the year 2050. Bratman also went on to say that living in an urban area “is associated with many kinds of stressors, whether it be noise, increased social interactions, traffic.”
These results of this study are going a long way to proving that spending time outdoors, in a natural setting, could be an important step towards treating or preventing depression.