While we’re well aware that being in the great outdoors is good for us, there’s been a multitude of studies carried out recently which confirm that spending time outdoors can have a beneficial effect on both our mental and physical health. Even small breaks outside can rejuvenate the brain and increase our attention span, and can help us to perform better on cognitive tests.
Some of the latest research has not only confirmed that spending time in nature is beneficial for us, but has also shown how being outdoors physically affects our brains. The study carried out by Gregory Bratman at Stanford University in the USA, followed 38 individuals who resided in urban areas, and who had no history of mental disorders. These people were divided into two groups and then sent on a walk. Half of the participants walked through a ‘natural’ area near the campus, while the other half were sent to walk along a busy road. Prior to their walk, the participants answered questions regarding their propensity for negative thinking, and were also subjected to a brain scan, with particular attention being paid to the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is active during self-reflective thought.
The results showed that the people who walked in nature for 90 minutes exhibited less negative thinking and answered the questionnaire differently afterwards too. The scientists found that the brain activity of these people also showed changes that were consistent with their improved thinking, with less activity in the prefrontal cortex. This led the scientists to suggest that even a short time spent in nature can decrease the kind of negative thinking that is often linked to the onset of mental illnesses such as depression.
While this kind of research has its critics, especially as conditions such as depression don’t necessarily have a single cause, the results of this particular study echo those of other studies which suggest that as the number of people living in urban areas increases, the number of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression increases too. However further research is needed to clarify this link.
In the meantime, the study authors have speculated that being in a natural environment gives us positive experiences which counteract some of the negative distractions, such as noise, traffic and pollution encountered in urban areas. And the evidence is clear; spending time outdoors is good for you.