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How nature heals the brain

POSTED August 5, 2015 11:49 a.m.
The next time you begin to worry, you may just want to take a walk in the woods.

It turns out that getting out into nature has palpable benefits on our state of mind.

Researchers have long known about the benefits of nature on well-being. A now-famous study by Roger S. Ulrich published in 1984 found that just a view through the window could alter a patient’s recovery. He set up a series of experiments with post-surgical patients, placing one group in hospital rooms with a view of deciduous trees. The other group had a view of a brown brick wall.

The resulting difference between the two was significant. Patients with a view of the trees had a shorter stay, took fewer post-operative medications and had slightly fewer complications.

The study was so groundbreaking that the design and implementation of hospital layout and outdoor gardens has seen a big push in the past few decades. According to an article in Scientific America, “Just three to five minutes spent looking at views dominated by trees, flowers or water can begin to reduce anger, anxiety and pain and to induce relaxation.”

However, you don’t have to be a hospital patient to incur the benefits of nature on your well-being. Nor do you have to do as Henry David Thoreau and escape to Walden Pond by yourself for months on end.

Just a few minutes a day walking through nature can have an impact on your emotional state.

A recent study by graduate student Gregory Bratman found that morbid rumination, that dangerous and often futile process of revisiting the same problems in our minds over and over, can be calmed through the simple act of walking through the woods, according to an article in the New York Times.

The researchers did brain scans on 38 healthy adults, accompanied by a questionnaire asking about their tendencies toward rumination. They then sent half the group on a 90-minute walk along a busy highway in Palo Alto. The other half took a 90-minute walk through a leafy, quiet area of the Stanford campus.

Not surprisingly, those who walked along the highway had similar worries and brain activity when they returned. Those who had walked through the trees, however, had improved their mental health and actually quieted their brains.

Carving out the time and space for quiet, leaf-dominated walks isn’t always easy, especially for urban dwellers. We make generalizations about cranky New Yorkers, but that too is part of the research.

“City dwellers also have a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers,” according to the New York Times article. Which is why many say that urban planning that includes green space (think Central Park) is so crucial to a city’s mental health.

We’ve all had that experience of escaping to the beach, the mountains or the woods and felt our breath slow, our muscles relax. Whether the impulse is biological or evolutionary, we are drawn to nature scapes.

“Throughout human history, trees and water have signaled an oasis, and flowering plants have been a sign of possible food. Open views deter surprises by predators, and shaded alcoves offer a safe retreat,” according to the article in Scientific America.

Thoreau said the same thing almost 150 years ago, only more poetically.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discovered that I had not lived."

This is all to say, if you’re still waffling about that end-of-summer camping trip, or that weekend in the mountains, it’s time to stop ruminating. When in doubt, step outside and head for the hills.

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