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One resource that is often overlooked in the discussion regarding brain health is nature. Nature includes all the aspects of the physical world around us that are not human-made, such as plants, animals and landscapes. Research proves how beneficial spending time in nature is for us, but are we listening?
Our distant ancestors were intimately tied to nature, as survival depended on finding food and being aware of predators and other hazards. As we have slowly shifted to urban lifestyles, many of us no longer have a connection to nature, beyond an occasional walk in a green space or park.
In Japan, people practise something called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. People don’t hike, or jog or exercise. Instead, they connect with nature through the different senses, sight, taste, smell, hearing and touch and relax. Doesn’t this sound wonderful? Even better, there are real health benefits to simply being in nature.1
Many of our modern jobs do not require us to work with the natural aspects of our environment. While some of our daily tasks are completed outdoors, most aren’t rooted in working with natural elements directly. Unfortunately, our brain health and overall well-being suffer when we don’t spend enough time in nature.
Science has achieved great things in recent history. We’ve seen the first pictures of a black hole, we’ve cured diseases such as HIV, which were once thought incurable, and computer and imaging technology continue to push on, resulting in new treatments for a variety of conditions. Yet, even with all these wonderful advances, we seem reluctant as a society to heed the advice of scientists, especially when the advice conflicts with our traditional order of business.
The many benefits of being in nature include:2
The real question is, why does spending time with nature so dramatically increase our wellbeing? David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, offers an explanation.
While our brains are miraculous and amazing organs, they do get fatigued. The daily stresses of life grind us down, physically and mentally. This fatigue eventually leads to a loss of performance, and we forego creative or innovative ideas while making more and more mistakes.
But, when we take a step back and stop trying to accomplish the endless tasks we face at work and home, our brains are able to rest. Strayer has called this the “three-day effect”, where you essentially wipe the clutter out of your brain and totally immerse yourself in nature without the distracting beep of a cell phone or replying to never-ending emails.
The prefrontal cortex, which dictates how we act, make decisions and interact with others, needs time to dial back and relax, just like an overworked muscle needs rest. Strayer and his team used a portable EEG to measure brain waves during the three-day respite to compare to typical brain function in daily life.3
His research has found evidence that higher-order cognitive skills do improve with prolonged exposure to the outdoors. It is thought that being in nature activates the default mode network in the brain, which is normally engaged when we daydream or spend time in introspection. The use of technology and multimedia has been shown to disrupt the default mode, highlighting the importance of being in natural environments.4
I’m more in tune with nature. If you can have the experience of being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.
Dr David Strayer
When you think of a world-class leader, do you only think of someone who constantly pushes themselves and seeks success relentlessly, no matter the price? Leadership in the Imagination Age doesn’t just require hard work, it also requires time spent relaxing. Managing stress is a core component of being a successful leader, and spending time in nature can reduce stress while also improving cognitive performance.
The toxic idea of ‘burning the candle at both ends’ needs to stop. This mentality has no place in the modern era. It’s time we recognise the benefits of nature, and it’s also important for us to preserve and restore our natural habitats. World leaders must commit to conserving land and water--now--if we hope to avoid irreversible losses.
A United Nations group released a statement, including many of the world’s large conservation organisations, calling for 30% of the planet to be kept in a natural state by 2030, and the goal goes up to 50% by 2050.5 While this seems to be a dramatic step, it’s necessary if we want to be able to enjoy the natural habitats and ecosystems of our planet in the future. We have the capacity to raise enormous resources (such as the overwhelming response to the fire at Notre Dame), but do we have the will to preserve our planet?
The impacts on brain health would likely be difficult to fathom if we someday can only enjoy nature in virtual reality or in books. Having a healthy planet is needed to ensure healthy minds. Stay tuned for my next article as we explore anxiety disorders. Subscribe to our blog here to receive updates.
1. Li, Q. ‘Forest Bathing’ Is Great for Your Health. Here’s How to Do It. TIME USA, LLC. 2018. Available here.
2. Keniger LE, Gaston KJ, Irvine KN, Fuller RA. What are the benefits of interacting with nature? Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2013;10(3):913–935. doi:10.3390/ijerph10030913
3. Williams F. This is Your Brain on Nature. National Geographic Society. 2016. Available here.
4. Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P. Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(12):e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.005147
5. Marris E. To Keep the Planet Flourishing, 30% of Earth Needs Protection by 2030. National Geographic Society. 2019. Available here.
GM & Chief Creative Officer
About my Brain Institute
Relmi Damiano is the Co-Founder, GM & CCO of the About my Brain Institute. Founded in 2009 alongside leadership expert Silvia Damiano, the Institute’s vision is to democratise leadership & neuroscience by shaking up how we develop the human, the leader and the creative we all carry within.
In 2010, this dynamic mother and daughter team, produced the first “Brain Art Project” as a way to explore people's incipient interest in the brain. This was an international competition and exhibition that over the course of 2 years attracted over 1000 artists, scientists, designers, health practitioners and business leaders from all over the world who shared and expressed their different perspectives on neuroscience, creativity, mental health and wellbeing. The insights gained from this venture, highlighted the relevance of building a more holistic, design-driven and interdisciplinary approach to applying brain science to our daily lives.
With Relmi’s user-centered design, digital strategy and artistic expertise paired up with Silvia’s 20 years of experience in transforming leaders and cultures, they then released the i4 Neuroleader Model, Methodology & Assessment Suite, published the ‘Leadership Is Upside Down’ book and coined the term Brain-Friendly Cultures - all in 2013.
The purpose of their i4 Neuroleader Methodology is to transform current leadership practices and create the leaders of the future, leaders who are more conscious, ethical, compassionate, healthy, integrated, imaginative, intuitive and inspirational. Over the course of 4 years, as part of Vivid Sydney, Relmi & Silvia hosted the annual i4 Tales Conference & Design Exhibition, which attracted over 250 people each year to explore and discuss these topics in a community environment.
Since its inception, the About my Brain Institute has certified more than 800 practitioners globally in the i4 Neuroleader Methodology, ran numerous events and retreats as well as delivered brain-friendly programs in organisations globally.
One of their most remarkable projects was the ‘Make Me A Leader’ film, released in 2018. They self-funded and produced a multiple award-winning documentary that gathered highly regarded experts, professors and scientists who shared the secrets of how leaders can optimise brain and body performance to thrive in the 21st Century.
Relmi has also been a sessional Lecturer and Tutor at Sydney University and Billy Blue College of Design in design thinking, service design, human-centered design, user experience, entrepreneurship, business model generation, branding, communication design, innovation and strategy. She also mentored and created a wide range of student design briefs for live industry projects for film, exhibition design, data visualisation, 3D/2D animation, gaming, digital art and web based projects.