Nature and Cognition

Nature and Cognition

In the past several months, a host of studies have been on the mental and physical benefits of spending time outdoors. Recent research shows that short breaks spent looking at a picture of nature can have a rejuvenating effect on the brain, boosting levels of attention.  Kids who attend schools featuring more greenery fare better on cognitive tests. However, the most recent study is very fascinating.  It’s a cognitive neuroscience study, meaning not only that benefits from a nature experience were captured in an experiment, but also that their apparent neural signature was observed through brain scans.

The paper, by Stanford’s Gregory Bratman and several colleagues sampled 38 individuals who lived in urban areas, and who had “no history of mental disorder,”. They were divided into two groups and asked to take a walk.

Half walked for 90 minutes through a natural area near the Stanford campus. The other half walked along a very busy road in downtown Palo Alto, California. Before and also after the walk, the participants answered a questionnaire designed to measure their tendency towards inward-directed thinking and questioning that has been tied to an increased risk of depression.  It is assessed with questionnaire items like “My attention is often focused on aspects of myself I wish I’d stop thinking about,” and “I spend a great deal of time thinking back over my embarrassing or disappointing moments.”

Both, before and after the walk, the participants had their brains scanned. In particular, the researchers examined a brain region called the subgenual prefrontal cortex — which the study calls “an area that has been shown to be particularly active during the type of, self-reflective thought and behavioral withdrawal that occurs during inward thinking.”

The result was that individuals who took the 90-minute nature walk showed a decrease in contemplation — they actually answered the questionnaire differently, just a short period of time later. And their brain activity also showed a change consistent with this result. In particular, the scans showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the region of interest.

“This provides robust results for us that nature experience, even of a short duration, can decrease this pattern of thinking that is associated with the onset, in some cases, of mental illnesses like depression,” says Gregory Bratman, the lead author of the study.

What’s particularly valuable is that the brain scans allowed for the examination of a potential cognitive mechanism by which nature experiences help our mental states. Without such evidence, psychological research can in effect only speculate on occurrences within actual regions of the brain. “That’s why we wanted to push and get at neural correlates of what’s happening,” said Bratman.

In other words, the new research provides a new kind of evidence that is not only consistent with but also strengthens the growing body of research on the benefits of nature exposure.

The researchers set their study in the context of modern trends toward ever larger numbers of people living in cities and an already demonstrated link between urbanization and mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Urbanisation comes with a decrease in nature and nature experience, and the urbanized percentage of humanity is projected to be 70 percent by the year 2050.

But a key question raised by this is, precisely how would an urban environment eliminate to create a mental behavior like depression?

Well, one of the ways in which cities can be helped from effects such as these, is by the creation of gardens which can help green the little spaces around buildings and on roof tops. Spending anytime with plants and nature, is good for you. The new study just adds in a new way to a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that we need to be putting all of our efforts in protecting and enhancing urban green spaces.

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