Nature's Effect on Our Brains and Well-being

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Why are we drawn to nature? What makes the great outdoors so great?

Sure, sunsets, snow-capped mountains, and endless oceans are beautiful and awe-inspiring. But these words only describe these places; in fact they only scratch the surface. Why do we feel so good after a long (or short!) hike, a day well spent at a lake, or simply by sitting on the front porch? I’ve always felt a huge pull from nature and its many pursuits but never fully knew why until recently.

It’s human nature.

Claiming our outdoor pursuits are for the adventure, the scenic pictures, the fresh air, or just simply to get away from it all is surely part of it. But stripped down to its core, our innate attachment to nature and the numerous benefits we derive from it is what draws us outside. This attachment is manifested in the countless activities we choose to do out-of-doors. Our brains crave it. Edward O. Wilson hypothesized that our deep connection with nature is what he calls “Biophilia,” which he describes as “…the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature.” And heeding to this drive has the power to ensure our well-being.

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Forest therapy?

Just being outside in nature improves our health on multiple fronts. Not being outside enough, or having a nature deficit, ails us. Enter forest therapy. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, or “forest basking,” and it forms the cornerstone of their healthcare system. They have compiled many studies that use objective markers of stress like cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure to determine the health benefits derived through simple contact with trees and plants. The result? Nature lowers them all. And its effects are even more pronounced in people with anxiety and depressive disorders. Being amongst trees and plants has also been found to improve symptoms of hyperactivity and attention disorders, as well as anger coping. We not only benefit from the visual presence of plants, but their scents too!

Fresh air…

There’s simply nothing like it. Fabreeze can try all they want, but they can never replace the natural aromas of the forest; especially when it comes to the benefits to our health. Plants release abundant amounts of phytochemicals into the air, which make their way directly to our brain via the olfactory system (our noses). Research suggests that this class of chemicals, called phytoncides, have significant effects on the brain, such as reducing anxiety, lowering stress hormones, regulating pain, and boosting our immune systems. It may sound silly to say that by simply breathing in the natural aroma of plants, we can improve our health. But plants utilize what we put (breathe) into the air, so why can’t it be a two-way street? We form symbiotic relationships with many living creatures, even bacteria.

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Being in nature also exposes us to a full range of microbes that helps to support our internal microbiomes, challenge, and adjust our immune systems. We need this exposure – it makes us more resistant to diseases. The outdoors also exposes us to the full spectrum of light, which helps to regulate melatonin and our sleep cycles. This is why we sleep so well after a well-spent day outside, basking in the forest. We all know the powerful benefits of sleep – and that many of us don’t get enough sleep so it’s possible that we all need to spend more time outside.

Why do we feel so good ‘basking in the forest’?

Using fMRI’s, researchers have pinpointed the specific area of the brain that nature works, called the parahippocampal gyrus, an area rich in opioid receptors. These receptors are linked to the dopamine reward system and are where drugs like morphine attach. They have powerful effects on the brain. When these opioid receptors are activated, they not only inhibit pain, but people perceive their stress levels to be lower, they dwell less on negative memories and more on positive ones, and they’re more likely to form emotional bonds. “This was an incredible finding, revealing that nature is like a little drop of morphine for the brain,” writes Dr. Eva Selhub of Harvard Medical School. Merely being immersed in nature has the power to improve our well-being, but there’s even more benefits when you move around in nature.

Exercise makes you smarter.

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When we are outside and immersed in nature, we are typically active. Most people know the effects that physical activity has on weight, particularly since the rise of obesity beginning in the late 20th century. People have been so focused on exercise as it pertains to weight control that they are blinded to the most crucial benefits it provides. Perhaps less obvious but none-the-less well pronounced, is the effect that physical activity has on the brain. Exercise builds not only our muscles, but also our brains through neurogenesis. Exercise increases our brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which Dr. Ratey of Harvard Medical School calls “Miracle-Grow for the brain.” He says that is why exercisers outperform couch potatoes in long-term memory, reasoning, attention, and problem-solving tasks. Exercise makes you smarter. Simply put, as another prominent brain researcher named John Medina says, physical activity is cognitive candy.

The most powerful preventative medicine…

Exercise triggers responses in other neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These chemicals have profound effects on well-being and have long been studied in connection with issues like addiction, depression, and anxiety. Numerous studies have suggested that exercise is just as effective at improving symptoms of depression and anxiety as modern medicines most powerful antidepressants. Even Hippocrates recognized that hundreds of years ago, for he said that people in a bad mood should go for a walk and that if you’re still in a bad mood, go for another walk. Furthermore, exercise helps to prevent the worlds most common afflictions: congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, angina and myocardial infarction, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, gallstones, breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, immune dysfunction, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and many more. Exercise is one of the most powerful medicines in the world.

What about challenge?

Simply being outside improves our health. Add some exercise and our health improves exponentially. Now, mix in some challenges and what you’ve got is the recipe for happiness. Challenges and rewards, we can’t have one without the other. Moreover, according to Dr. John Ratey, “we get the greatest pleasure not out of a predictable reward but out of an unexpected one. We take pleasure in challenge and get more mindful and focused at the same time by dopamine, which is the carrot pulling us along to overcome the challenges of survival, short- and long-term… allowing your life to surmount to occasional challenge is inoculation—almost literally—against future stress.”

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Predictable rewards don’t fully stimulate our brains circuitry of rewards. Camping, canoeing, hiking, biking – almost anything outdoors challenges us frequently and often unexpectedly. My second favorite mother, Mother Nature, is wild and unrelenting. She is pitilessly indifferent and this demands our awareness. We must be mindful of our surroundings when we are outside, which is a form of stress relief in its own right as mindfulness reduces anxiety and depression. Nature will challenge you. Without challenge, we can’t be rewarded. Like Goethe said, “nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.” Well-being is not always about being safe, fed, or comfortable. It’s about being challenged.

In conclusion…

By now you should have noticed the intricate connections between nature and our overall wellbeing. These connections are not hearsay. John Medina, in the book Brain Rules says, “Though we know precious little about how the brain works, our evolutionary history tells us this: The brain appears to be designed to (1) solve problems (2) related to surviving (3) in an unstable outdoor environment, and (4) to do so in nearly constant motion.” This is why people need wilderness experiences and adventures. This why we want to ditch the modern, comfortable world for a rustic camping experience, disconnected from civilization and lacking walls. Our brains crave it. The pathways and effects of nature on us are deeply integrated to how we are wired as humans, and our health depends on it. So

…take an adventure into the great outdoors and your brain will thank you, for we are born to be wild.

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Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Walt Whitman


Logan, A.C., Selhub, E.M. (2014) Your brain on nature. New York, NY: Collins.

Manning, R., Ratey, J.J. (2015) Go wild. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Medina, J.J. (2014) Brain rules. Seattle, WA; Pear Press.

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