By Michele Byers
Want to do something nice for your brain?
You could eat fish, the reputed “brain food,” or try problem-solving, mend-bending exercises and puzzles.
Or you could step into a quiet green space and give your mind a mini-break.
A growing body of evidence suggests one of the things you can do for your brain is visiting a park or natural environment. It’s soothing and may even help you function more efficiently at work!
Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at Stanford University, conducted two recent studies designed to measure how spending time in green, natural spaces impacts our brains.
In the first study, Bratman and his colleagues found that volunteers who strolled through a quiet, leafy section of campus were happier and more attentive than those who walked for the same length of time near a loud, busy highway.
The second study aimed to find out why, if and how spending time in nature actually changed the brain in some way. Bratman and his team examined what walking in a natural setting does to our tendency to brood or worry about our lives.
Known to scientists as “morbid rumination,” this kind of brooding can lead to depression. It’s associated with a part of the brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex.
The study showed a 90-minute walk in nature decreases rumination, as reported by participants, as well as neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex. A 90-minute walk in an urban setting, on the other hand, had no impact on rumination or neural activity.
According the authors, the study “suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”
Another study, this one by Kate Lee of the University of Melbourne in Australia, found that even smaller bursts of exposure to nature make a difference.
In Lee’s study, 150 students were tested in their ability to maintain focus and attention. They had to quickly tap or not tap a keyboard key in response to a series of numbers flashing by rapidly on their computer screens.
The students performed the so-called “Sustained Attention to Response Task” test twice, with a short break. During the break, half the students were shown an image of a cement building rooftop while the other half were shown a building rooftop covered in grass and flowers.
The results? You guessed it! The students shown the pastoral green roof scene performed better on the task, showing less fluctuation in reaction time and making fewer errors. They also reported “restorative” feelings after seeing images of grass and flowers.
“Nature can provide cognitive benefits in much shorter timeframes and in smaller amounts than previously demonstrated,” the authors concluded.
For anybody who works on computers all day in an office — and that’s a lot of us — the implications are clear.
“Modern work drains attention throughout the day so providing boosted ‘green micro-breaks’ may provide mental top-ups to offset declining attention,” Lee told the Washington Post.
So do your brain a favor and get into nature. You have few excuses to stay inside since there’s no shortage of parks and preserves all over New Jersey where you can soothe your mind, increase your mental functions and get some exercise to boot.
For an online map of trails in New Jersey, visit these sites: http://www.njconservation.org/recreation.htm, njtrails.org and nynjtc.org.
Michele Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. For more information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit NJCF’s website at www.njconservation.org.
By Michele Byers