A new study confirms what has long been apparent to all us lovers of the great outdoors: Spending time in natural environments reduces stress.
To gauge this effect, including specific measurements of how time in nature affects brain activity, researchers at Stanford University recruited 38 participants. Half of them were sent on a short 90-minute walk through a leafy, natural setting on campus, the other half on a 90-minute stroll alongside a busy highway. Before and after their walks, participants underwent a brain scan and completed a questionnaire.
No morbid rumination here! Photo: AESanfacon/Flickr
The results? Based on the before and after questionnaire, folks who spent time in the natural setting showed measurable improvements in their mental health and overall happiness. Folks alongside the highway, not so much.
The researchers also specifically evaluated the effects these walks had on participants' "morbid rumination" or brooding—thinking unproductive and negative thoughts about one's life, past mistakes, and so forth. This sort of fretting is associated with increased activity in a part of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex. (Hence the study's rather abstruse title: Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.)
Based on the brain scans, the nature walkers showed decreased levels of activity in their subgenual prefrontal cortices while the highway walkers showed essentially no change.
The upshot? The study provides supporting evidence that spending time in nature can actually alter your brain for the better.