This Is Your Brain On Nature

Given what we know about the profound mental and emotional impact of natural spaces, we need to protect them as though our mental health depends on it. Because it does.

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This essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Trail Runner. Join today

When it comes to the impact of nature and open spaces on physical wellbeing, the benefits are widely known. But the psychological impacts are just as critical. Almost anyone who has spent time in the company of Mother Nature will agree that it is soul-filling, awe-inspiring and generally leaves you with a smile. I can remember times when I was out for a solo trail run in a beautiful place and found myself laughing out loud as if my body couldn’t contain the joy that I was experiencing. 

And the positive impact of the outdoors is not just anecdotal; research continues to validate just how much being in outdoor spaces can increase cognition, happiness and general wellbeing. 

It’s no wonder that as various threats to these spaces present themselves, many outdoor lovers have experienced anxiety and stress about the safety of the places that provide solace. Given what we know about the profound mental and emotional impact that natural spaces offer, we need to protect them as though our mental health depends on it. Because it does.

Nature’s Impact on Mental Health 

While a lot of research has focused on forests and wilderness areas, something as simple as a stroll in a city park can still have a positive impact on your mental health. For those who don’t have easy access to more remote natural environments, urban and suburban nature also provide many benefits. 

A study in the journal Science Advances demonstrates that contact with nature is associated with an increase in happiness, sense of purpose and meaningful connection both with nature and others. We are learning that these advantages are not just perceived, but in fact very real. One study in Denmark tracked kids’ access to green space from infancy to age 10, then correlated that data with the population’s risk for developing mental health disorders in adulthood. The findings showed that those with less exposure to nature had a 55% higher risk  of negative mental health outcomes. Having less access to nature and green or blue spaces quite literally impacts your likelihood of mental health challenges. 

Nature’s Impact on Cognition 

Not only does research support that exposure to nature increases emotional wellness; it has also been found to have positive cognitive impacts. When you consider how many hours per day the average American spends looking at a screen, it’s easy to see why attentional control has become a challenge for many. Whether for a few hours or for a few days, more time spent in natural environments usually means disconnecting from devices, which improves working memory and attentional control, ultimately helping to better manage distractions. 

Attention is one of our most precious resources, yet many people struggle to stay present while filtering all the distractions competing for their brainspace. Being in nature has a restorative impact on our attention. Multiple studies have shown that exposure to nature improves performance on cognitive tasks requiring directed attention. This doesn’t have to mean taking 5 months to through-hike the PCT or setting off on a 4-day fastpacking adventure (although it could!). Simply breaking up your work day by leaving your phone behind and going for a 30-minute run or walk can have real cognitive functioning benefits.

How to Connect More With Nature

  • Leave your phone and headphones at home on your next run
  • Talk a walk during your next lunch break at work
  • Keep your office windows open
  • Next time you meet a friend for coffee, take a walk around a city park instead of sitting inside the cafe 
  • Plan a weekend picnic in a nearby green space
  • Try a new route the next time you walk your dog

Nature’s Impact on Connection 

Spending time outside increases connection both with our home planet and our fellow humans. It also increases a sense of responsibility within that connection. Spending time outdoors tends to result in people not only being kinder to each other, but kinder to the planet. The more that people have access to natural spaces, the more they want to protect them. 

There are many ways to get involved with preserving and protecting access to green space. Start within your local community, whether that’s planting a neighborhood garden or getting involved with local and state legislators, there is a lot to be done right in your (literal and figurative) backyard. Engaging in sustainable and environmentally responsible practices like reducing your carbon footprint and being conscious about resource consumption also helps protect green spaces. 

As more and more research focuses on the positive mental, emotional and cognitive impacts of spending time in nature, its power can’t be denied. Engaging with our ecosystem in sustainable and environmentally-conscious ways is crucial for our climate; access to clean air, food and water; and the health of our home planet. But, it’s also crucial for maintaining happier, healthier, more connected humans. 

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