Nature makes us happy- and there’s a growing body of scientific literature to support this intuitive claim. It’s something that the romantic poets have known for a long time, but it’s taken awhile for science to catch up with the evidence.
This realm of research is super exciting to me. It’s at the intersection of my two biggest interests: nature and health. There have been a number of psychological studies that show that people are more alert, creative, and healthier after exposure to nature, but it was only recently that researchers have started to look at what happens deep inside our brains when we spend time in nature. The effects of nature on our psyches has been considered “soft science”, but there have been some really interesting recent findings about the changes in our bodies in response to spending time outdoors.
National Geographic has been reporting much of this information to the general public, alongside Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, which I’ve been reading this semester. Today’s technology is allowing neuroscientists to take measurements – capable of measuring our brain waves- into the field to discover what’s happening in our brains when we walk down a city street versus take a walk in the park. The main finding has been that our frontal lobes, the part of the brain that is most engaged in modern life, deactivates itself a little when we’re outside. In addition to this, the alpha waves our brains put out grow stronger, which indicate a calm yet alert state of mind.
Some people may wonder how much time you need to spend in nature for you to experience it’s healthful, restorative effects. Cognitive physiologist David Strayer has one hypothesis- the “three-day effect”. It takes about three days for our senses to recalibrate and for our brains to unwind, resulting in improved mental performance. Contrary to popular belief, our brains are not machines; they fatigue easily and spending time in nature is one of the best ways to hit the metaphorical reset button.
I believe we’re at risk for losing the sharpness of our senses if we spend too much time indoors. We put our earbuds in to walk around campus, favoring our own personal soundscapes over the natural sounds around us. Now that there is hard evidence supporting the beneficial effects of nature on our brain, we must use this information to tackle tough public health problems. Obesity, depression, and some behavioral issues have all been shown to be associated with time spent indoors. It’s an exciting time to work in this field as this renewed interest in studying how nature effects our brains and beings garners more thought by professionals. As Nat Geo puts it, “we are wired to be outside”, and that’s pretty cool.
Williams, Florence. The nature fix: why nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Independent Publishers Since 1923, 2017. Print.
Williams, Florence. “This Is Your Brain on Nature.” National Geographic. N.p., 13 Apr. 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
Worrall, Simon. “We Are Wired To Be Outside.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 19 Apr. 2017. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.