Nature’s Effects on the Brain

One of my favorite parts of my ecopsychology class is teaching people about the concrete, measurable ways in which nature positively affects us physically and mentally. Whether that’s studies showing whether virtual nature is as beneficial as the real thing, the physiological markers that indicate nature’s positive impact, or using a mobile EEG to measure mental well-being in natural versus human-dominated settings, I enjoy when people are able to quantify the ways nature is good for us. And as someone whose grad school work focused on ecopsychology, I’m especially interested in nature’s effects on the brain.

Relevant Studies

A picture of an EEG scan showing five variably wavy lines for post on nature's effects on the brainThe studies over the past few years that utilize the mobile EEG are particularly intriguing. Using the Emotiv EPOC EEG headset, researchers in multiple studies were able to track variable including engagement, valence, excitement, frustration, focus, and meditation. Some tested the difference in people’s metrics according to their setting (nature vs. human-dominated); at least one focused on the difference between sitting and walking in a natural space (both ended up being beneficial but for different reasons.) While the study samples were small, generally under 100 individuals, they bode well for future research and they validate previous research using other methods. On a related note, I found this study that showed that the data from the mobile EEGs in outdoor settings is indeed likely to be as valid as a traditional EEG, along with one discussing how a person’s movement can affect their mobile EEG readings, which could be used to improve the technology in the future.

Obviously a handful of studies with small sample sizes won’t convince everyone, nor should researchers stop there. But it’s another potential avenue for adding to the already substantial body of evidence demonstrating a connection between time spent in natural settings, and mental health. And since our physical and mental health are strongly linked, the physiological benefits of time spent in natural places have a direct effect on those results, too. (Plus it’s a good step toward inviting people to improve their nature literacy by making nature more personally meaningful.)

More importantly it helps to validate qualitative evidence consisting of subjective experiences many people report having in nature. While ecopsychology and ecotherapy are still a niche in the greater mental health treatment arena, there is growing interest in this field both from practitioners and potential clients, as well as everyday folks just interested in finding out more about how to make the most of nature’s restorative properties. Most of us don’t need a study to tell us that something good is happening when we get outside and we start to feel better, or that there’s a reason we yearn to get back out there as often as possible. But it’s nice to have the evidence that gives us more words to explain what’s happening collectively as well as individually, and to help people understand the processes behind nature’s effects on the brain.

Accessing Nature’s Effects on the Brain

View of a forest from inside the door of a blue camping tent for post on nature's effects on the brainWhat I find really wonderful about all this is that you don’t necessarily have to be doing anything special outdoor. You can be walking, taking a snooze in the grass, camping, fishing, birdwatching, foraging, or simply sitting and watching the world go by for a while. Sure, you can drive a couple of hours out of town to get to a remote wilderness, but if you happen to have a yard, nearby park, or other safe, accessible greenspace, that can work as well. And since the positive effects of being outdoors can start in as little as 10-20 minutes, you don’t necessarily have to make a big time investment; although longer excursions can be more refreshing for a lot of people, a small daily dose can also be a good addition to your routine when possible.

Does this mean every single person will benefit from time in nature? Not necessarily. For some people, past experiences mean that they have a negative association with the natural world. Minorities have historically been made to feel less welcome and safe in outdoor recreational spaces, many of which were segregated for a long time, and in some cases spending time outdoors is a reminder of what was supposed to be left in the past. Other times it comes down to a personal bad experience, like the client I had in grad school who grew up in a heavily urban environment, and the closest they got to “camping” was being locked for hours in the basement as punishment, with only cellar spiders to keep them company. This led them to be uncomfortable in nature for fear they might see a spider or other creepy-crawly that reminded of them of that traumatic, out-of-control situation.

Photo of a park with green grass bordered by lots of green trees for post on nature's effects on the brainBut nature-related therapy isn’t something that should be forced, and each person needs to find their own relationship to nature, whatever that may be. By offering insights into how developing that relationship can be good for us, we may be able to entice folks outdoors who might otherwise have never taken the chance to see what all the fuss is about regarding nature’s effects on the brain, body, and self.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider taking one of my online foraging and natural history classes, checking out my other articles, or picking up a paperback or ebook I’ve written! You can even buy me a coffee here!

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