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Better Understanding Nature’s Effect on the Brain

May 31, 2022Neelem Sheikh

Why is it that whenever we are feeling down or are having a bad day, we are often told to go for a walk to get some fresh air? From taking a stroll through your local park to taking in the scenery on a hike in the mountains, being outside in nature can be restorative and grounding.

How and where we spend our time plays a huge role in our overall health and wellbeing, including our mental and cognitive health. An emerging body of research suggests that being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, can reduce stress, fear, and anger, increase pleasant feelings, and even sharpen some of our cognitive abilities.

Below, we take a closer look at nature’s effect on the brain, including potential physiological and cognitive benefits of exposure to nature, the use of nature for therapy-based interventions, and the best way to stay in touch with your brain health.

Nurtured by Nature: Understanding Nature’s Effect on the Brain

There are so many factors that impact our mental and cognitive health that we don’t often think about. Researchers and healthcare professionals alike are increasingly recognizing the immense impact social and environmental factors have on our health. Experts estimate that only 10% of longevity can be attributed to healthcare services and only 30% to genetics, while 60% can be attributed to individual behaviors and social and environmental factors.

Nature’s Effect on the Brain: Potential Physiological and Cognitive Benefits

With this new understanding, researchers have begun investigating how specific interactions and behaviors, such as spending time in nature, affect brain health. Emerging research suggests that experiencing or viewing nature may provide potential benefits such as:

  • Reduced stress, anger, and fear.
  • Increased feelings of kindness, generosity, and trust.
  • Reduced risk of developing psychiatric disorders.
  • Improved working memory.
  • Improved short-term memory.

Here is a closer look at some of the research surrounding nature’s effect on the brain:

  • In a series of studies published in 2014, researchers analyzed the impact of nature on the willingness of participants to be generous, trusting, and helpful towards others. They found that after being exposed to the “more beautiful” nature scenes, participants acted more generously and were more trusting of others. 
  • A 2015 study aimed to investigate the impact of nature experience on affect and cognition, with 60 participants randomly assigned to walk 50 minutes in either a natural or urban environment while completing a series of cognitive and psychological assessments before and after their walk. The researchers found that compared to the urban walk, the nature walk produced affective benefits, such as reduced anxiety, rumination, and negative affect and preservation of positive affect, as well as cognitive benefits, such as improved working memory performance. 
  • A 2018 study assessing the effect of exposure to biophilic indoor environments on physiological and cognitive performance found that biophilic environments decrease negative emotions, increase positive emotions, and improve short-term memory by 14%.
  • A 2019 nationwide study assessed the association between urban living (with lower levels of green space) and the risk of developing psychiatric disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and substance abuse. They found that children who grew up in the lowest levels of green space had up to a 55% higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder independent from the effects of other known risk factors. This suggests that the prolonged presence of green space may be important for mental health.
  • Many studies have found that even viewing images or videos of nature can improve emotional well-being. A 2020 case study assessed the effects of combining nature therapy and music therapy for dementia patients. They found that after the combined visual and auditory experience, the tranquility levels of memory care residents improved significantly compared to baseline.

While more research is needed to truly understand nature’s effect on the brain and the mechanisms at work, increasing scientific evidence suggests that viewing elements of nature is associated with physiological relaxation.

Nature as Therapy

In recent years, nature therapy, or ecotherapy, has been proposed as a novel form of therapy for stress recovery and health promotion. Nature therapy is defined as “a set of practices aimed at achieving ‘preventive medical effects’ through exposure to natural stimuli that render a state of physiological relaxation and boost the weakened immune function to prevent disease.” 

When paired with other elements of healthy living, such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep, exposure to nature may be utilized to prevent or mitigate risk factors for conditions such as dementia and mood disorders. Nature therapy is also being investigated as a means to treat or alleviate behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD).

Staying in Touch with Your Brain Health with Altoida

Brain health is essential to everything we do daily and plays an important role in our ability to live long, healthy, and happy lives. Understanding how our actions and lifestyles impact our brains allows us to take charge of our overall wellness by incorporating elements of healthy living and regularly monitoring our brain health.

Altoida’s mission is to accelerate and improve drug development, neurological disease research, and patient care. To learn more about our precision-neurology platform and app-based medical device, contact us!

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