Your Brain On Nature

I've always been obsessed with the brain. I've studied it in school, in my personal life and in context to helping my past clients. About a year ago, after years of inexplicably feeling the most alive, in tune with my body and invigorated after all my outdoor experiences, I began to delve into research to answer this question: 

" Why do I feel more productive, peaceful, intuitive and creative after spending time camping or hiking?" 

The average North American spends 90% of their time indoors. The remaining 10% is in a car. This is an environment very different from our ancestors origins. How has this radical shift in mind and lifestyle affected our minds and body?

David Strayer a cognitive  psyschologist that specializes in attention span, has studied the brain in nature for quite some time. He says " Our brains aren’t tireless three-pound machines; they’re easily fatigued. When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too." 

Do you ever think to yourself "Oh I'm tired but if I JUST keeping working harder. longer, faster I will be better. do better. be happier?"

It's not your fault because it's  been programmed in us for the last few centuries in the developing world. With the rise of industrialism we were taught that more production equals better. 

How could resting our brains for a few hours or days REALLY help our lives? Wouldn't it be better if we just spent money on things to make us happy? Instead we are programmed dopamine triggering messages from shiny objects, likes on Facebook, likes on Instagram, text messages, pings, dings, consume new things, and devices that were made to send us into a heroin like dependency. Then it wears off and we seek more. The cycle of being plugged in and consuming continues. 

We forget that the brain is a muscle and needs rest just like other muscles after a long workout. We can't realistically be able to output quality work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week- no matter how much you believe you can or your boss tells you too. Yet we live in a world that intrinsically demands those kinds of hours, indoors, in front of a screen without any exposure to the natural world.  This goes against our basic biology. 

Just by looking at nature our brains change. A few years ago my mom told me that when she's feeling stressed she just pulls up a video of someone fly fishing and just watches it. It's provided her immense coping techniques for stress. Many studies show that even just being around a green space while working immensely helps fulfillment in work. The reason simple gestures such as looking at greenery help us because it takes our way from directed attention which requires a lot of mental effort.  You don't have to concentrate on driving, writing, using machinery you don't have to direct anything with  your pre-frontal cortex- the processing brain. We forget that the brain is a muscle and needs rest just like our muscles after a long workout. Our brains can't realistically be able to output quality work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.  This goes against our basic biology. 

The more time spent in nature, the less material things I feel I need. The less approval from social sites, conversations I seek out. I become less dependent on external motivation and more dependent on on my internal motivation. And it wasn't just me. I started to hear this from my friends, clients and family when hiking or camping with them. 

I started to hear things like: 

"I feel so calm right now."

" This conversation is so amazing."

" I'm having all of these ideas for work!" 

" I've never slept so well."

"I think I just realized I really don't need to buy that new insert shiny object thing." 

Korean researchers used functional MRI to watch brain activity in people viewing different images. When the volunteers were looking at urban scenes, their brains showed more blood flow in the amygdala, which processes fear and anxiety. In contrast, the natural scenes lit up the anterior cingulate and the insula—areas associated with empathy and altruism. Maybe nature makes us nicer as well as calmer and less dependent on material things. 

So what does this mean? Should we just all abandon technology and go live in the forest like our ancestors?

Reaping the benefits from nature doesn't have to be that drastic. Even just 15 minutes a day can have effects on mood. 24 hours in nature and you start to really feel a whole body sensation changing. And 72 hours in changes gives your entire brain a detox. 

Take some time today, tomorrow, this month to engage in nature in a meaningful way. This does not mean have your phone glued to your hand taking pictures all of the time. Even if aren't ready to be away from your phone for 24 or 72 hours, start with a few hours. See how your body reacts when you spend a few hours completely unplugged with yourself or your friends. 

Thank you for reading all the way to the end of this article! It means the world to me and I hope you gained some valuable information. My goal is to always inspire people to get outdoors. If you liked this topic, please share it with someone or comment below on future topics you would like to see written about in the future! 

Stay wild, 

Cristina 

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Cristina SchoolerComment