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The Brain Boosting Effects of Outdoor Adventures

Time outside can increase brain volume in an area crucial for decision-making.

Key points

  • A recent study repeatedly scanned volunteers' brains to explore changes based on their behaviors.
  • The brain volume of those spending more time outdoors increased in areas crucial for planning and attention.
  • Time spent outside also increased positive affect, such as enthusiasm, excitement and interest.

As I await the deep magenta bloom of our dahlia, I wander around the backyard, dodging the diligent bees and noticing my neighbor’s ripening tomatoes. The summer is beginning to wind down and school supplies are disappearing from the shelves. Still, I find comfort in any excuse to leave the confines of my desk in favor of the soft breeze across my porch.

Nurturing Healthy Habits

In addition to such important aspects of health as adequate sleep (at least seven hours), a diet filled with brain-enhancing nutrients, and stress-relieving breathing techniques, I try to remind my patients of the benefit of time outdoors.

Recently, a study as fascinating as it is simple emphasized the key role our environment can play in our mood and thinking.

Studying the Effects of Time Outdoors

Designed by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, the study involved recurrent brain scans (MRI) of six participants between 24-32 years of age, over a period of 6-8 months, as they went about their typical routines. In addition to questions about their fluid intake, amount of free time, caffeine consumption and intensity of exercise, they were also asked about the amount of time they spent outdoors.

Additionally, participants completed a scale of their momentary affect (how they were feeling) at the time of each scan, via the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). They were asked, for example, how excited, interested, or enthusiastic they felt (positive affect) as well as how distressed, scared, or irritable (negative affect).

Time Outdoors Was Linked to Positive Affect and Higher Gray Matter Volume

The results demonstrated several key points: First, there was a positive correlation between time spent outdoors and positive affect (i.e. more time outside meant they had more of those positive emotions). Second, this correlation did not exist between time outdoors and negative affect (though the researchers did note the subjects were a positive group overall, with relatively low negative affect scores at baseline).

Finally, and most fascinating, I think, is that the brain scans (MRIs) of those who spent more time outdoors showed higher grey matter volume in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). In other words, time outside increased the size of their brains. And, importantly, this growth occurred in an area crucial for executive functioning skills such as working memory, attention and decision-making.

This increase in brain volume has been seen following other interventions, including exercise and cognitive training, but both of these involved more time and effort to result in the amount of change noted here. Another important takeaway: the subjects all lived in urban areas, suggesting that you don’t necessarily need to be deep in the woods to reap the benefits of time outdoors.

How Can We Put This Information to Use?

What this study suggests is that we should add a new "green prescription" for patients, particularly those who may have significant difficulty concentrating, such as in ADHD, or experiencing positive affect, as in depression. In fact, it seems we all could benefit from a daily excursion (or several) into the great outdoors, listening to those birds, dodging those bumblebees, and letting that soft breeze wash over us. Our brains will be better for it.

References

Simone Kühn, Anna Mascherek, Elisa Filevich, Nina Lisofsky, Maxi Becker, Oisin Butler, Martyna Lochstet, Johan Mårtensson, Elisabeth Wenger, Ulman Lindenberger & Jürgen Gallinat. Spend time outdoors for your brain – an in-depth longitudinal MRI study, The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, 2021. DOI: 10.1080/15622975.2021.1938670

Watson D, Clark LA, Tellegen A. 1988. Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: the PANAS scales. J Pers Soc Psychol. 54(6):1063–1070.

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