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3 Ways Nature Exposure May Improve Brain Function

Decreased stress and increased empathy are clear benefits.

Key points

  • Modern day humans have been getting far less nature exposure, and it may come at a significant cost to our health
  • Time in nature has been linked to decreased activation of our brain's stress pathways
  • Exposure to nature may help us connect with other people and understand them better
  • Nature time may enhance our brain function and even improve our decision-making
Nina Uhlíková/pexels
Source: Nina Uhlíková/pexels

We spend a lot of time indoors. In fact, one survey showed that in a given day, we likely spend less than 8% of our time outside. There’s also been a major transition in where we live, with a mass movement from rural to urban settings. It’s thought that by 2050, almost 70% of people will live in urban environments. Of course, there are good reasons for all this. But as we increasingly move away from nature and spend our time inside in urban hubs, research suggests we might be missing out. Specifically, our brains may benefit from nature exposure, and suffer from its absence. Here are 3 ways nature may help your brain, and how to make this science work for you.

1. Decreased activation of the stress network. Survey data from the American Psychological Association report concerning levels of stress, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Stress, especially chronic stress, is known to have a toxic effect on the brain, carrying associations with higher rates of cognitive decline as well as increased risk for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. This is why it’s so important to look for ways to decrease or offset the burden of stress we face today. Nature exposure appears to be one effective and low-budget solution.

In a 2010 paper published in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, researchers conducted experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Participants in the study spent around 15 minutes either in a city or a forest, sitting or walking around. During this period, a number of different measurements were taken, including many related to stress pathways. On reviewing the data, the researchers found that the forest group had lower concentrations of cortisol, lower heart rate, and lower sympathetic activity than did the urban group, suggesting that nature time had “relaxing and stress-relieving effects.”

A number of other studies have corroborated this finding, with a 2017 review paper showing a significant effect of forest time on blood pressure, and other research suggesting that simply inhaling the scents of various plants could help lower other measurements of stress pathway activation. Nature’s calming effect on the brain’s stress pathways could help to explain why more exposure to nature has been associated with better mental health, including less anxiety.

3. Increased empathy. One of the more surprising findings in the nature literature relates to its potential to change how we interact with and see others. In a 2014 study researchers found that simply looking at tall trees was associated with a significant increase in people’s prosocial behavior compared to looking at buildings. Looking at aesthetically beautiful indoor plants was shown to correlate with increased helping behavior, and looking at photos of beautiful natural settings have been linked to more generosity and trust. Another paper found that after staying in the woods for 5 days (without access to screens), children were better at identifying nonverbal cues than those who stayed in town.

3. Improvement in brain health. Brain health is certainly among the most important aspects of wellness, and people are willing to do almost anything to improve it. In 2020, the global market for cognitive enhancing supplements alone was valued at over 7 billion dollars. But is it possible that simple exposure to nature could be a hidden brain booster?

Over the course of several decades, researchers have studied how nature might affect cognition. In a recent systematic review, scientists linked nature time with improvements in multiple aspects of cognitive function including better working memory and cognitive flexibility. Some of these benefits were even seen with virtual exposure to nature, although the researchers did point out that the effects of real life nature might be more powerful. Nature has even been shown to have benefits to decisions making, with one study showing that looking at photos of nature (versus urban environments) was associated with less impulsive choices.

In 2019, a review published in Landscape and Urban Planning looked more specifically at the effects of nature on children, concluding that “passive nature exposure may promote positive changes in attention in youth” and suggesting a potential value for nature incorporation in schools to promote children’s brain development. Additional research has been conducted on children with diagnoses of ADHD. Various lines of study have indicated the potential for nature to assist here, with one paper showing that children with ADHD taken on a walk through a park had substantial improvements in concentration compared to those taken on a walk through a city.

How to Get Your Nature Fix

When considering the fact that nature exposure is often cheap, frequently free, and may have a diverse range of brain boosting effects, it’s hard to argue against a prescription for a bit more nature in our lives. So how do you do it? For information on dosing Vitamin N, check out this article. As far as how to engage with nature, consider asking your friends and family for their favorite local nature spots. Bring a book, lunch, or simply an inquisitive mind and find a local park to spend time in. Try purchasing and caring for an indoor plant, or growing a windowsill garden. You can consider joining a local community garden, or finding opportunities for camping near you. Lastly, look for local meeting groups of similarly nature-oriented people or experts.