Walking in nature and its effect on the brain

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Walking in nature and its effect on the brain
Walking in nature and its effect on the brain © Mario Tama / Getty Images News

A new study reveals that visiting nature can change the brain's function to improve mental health, while calming the mind. People today live mostly in cities and spend less time in natural, green spaces than a few generations ago.

Studies reveal that people who live in cities are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses than people who live outside urban centers. There is a growing body of research suggesting that these findings are somewhat related.

It has been shown that urban dwellers who do not have access to green spaces are more likely to suffer from psychological problems than residents who have access to parks. In addition, urban dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones than those who do not visit these environments.

The exact mechanism of how visiting a park or another place with greenery can affect mood was unknown. Our brains change when we experience nature, does that affect our emotional well-being?

Bratman and his studies

At Stanford University, Gregory Bratman, a graduate student studying the psychological effects of urban living in Emet's interdisciplinary program, was intrigued by that possibility.

Researchers at Stanford found that volunteers who walked for a short period near lush green areas were more mindful and happy afterwards compared with volunteers who walked near heavy traffic. In contrast, that study did not examine how nature's effects are mediated by the nervous system.

Bratman and his colleagues examined how walking might affect a person's tendency to ruminate on negativity in a new study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Most of us experience ruminating, also known as morbid thinking, when we can't stop "ruminating" about what's wrong with ourselves and our lives.

There is nothing healthy or helpful about this type of upset. Compared to people who live outside of cities, it is disproportionately common among city dwellers. However, for Bratman as well as his colleagues, the most interesting aspect is the strong association between such thinking and increased activity in the subgenualis area of the frontal lobe.