If you like to spend your break time with a quick jaunt around the corner to buy a coffee, nobody’s judging. But according to science, you might be better off if you took time out of your day to get on a trail and make friends with some trees. That’s because time in nature literally changes brain function, shifting which brain areas dominate in activity.
Forcing people into the woods
David Strayer, cognitive psychologist and professor of neuroscience at the University of Utah, together with graduate assistant Rachel Hopman, conducted a study within Stayer’s “Cognition in the Wild” course. The study was designed to look at how the brain reacted to nature exposure. The researchers had students perform simple tests, such as counting backward by threes. They then sent the students off for 30 minutes in the great outdoors and repeated the tests once the students came back. EEG caps measured neural activity during both rounds of testing.
Results showed that students performed significantly better on the post-nature testing than on the tests completed prior to being outside. Activity in the frontal lobe significantly decreased, while activity in other areas of the brain went up.
Strayer hypothesizes that the prefrontal cortex, which you use to make decisions and problem solve, gets overworked in the hectic modern world, depleting reserves. When you go into nature, your prefrontal cortex finally gets a break and can restore itself. According to Strayer, that rejuvenation can boost memory by up to 20 percent. Creativity goes up by as much as 50 percent, too.
Strayer’s results are similar to the results of other studies on the brain and nature. A 2015 study led by Gregory Bratman, for instance, found that a 90-minute walk in nature reduced blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is associated with both rumination and depression. Participants also reported feeling happier.
But why does the brain react this way?
One explanation is that nature can provide soft fascination. Soft fascination refers to engaging in any pleasurable activity that lets your brain wander. As you perform those activities, you’re still occupied, but you’re not really trying to work anything out. Subsequently, your brain doesn’t overly focus, and it explores problems more subconsciously. It’s the reason you can get epiphanies or flashes of insight when, say, you’re doing your dishes.
Invest in nature, invest in yourself
From a practical standpoint, you probably have a bazillion things on your to-do list that might make a nature refresher seem like a luxury. But the research from professionals like Strayer suggests that getting into the outdoors might help you tackle that massive to-do pile faster and even find better ways of innovating. From that standpoint, you can’t afford not to hit a trail, just like you can’t afford not to eat right or get enough sleep. Try swapping some of your Netflix or Facebook time for nature time or have your lunch in a wooded park, and remember, you only need 30 minutes.