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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.
About my Brain Institute
In 2009, Relmi Damiano co-founded the About my Brain Institute alongside scientist and leadership expert Silvia Damiano. Their vision is to democratise leadership & neuroscience by shaking up how we develop the human, the leader and the creative we all carry within.