Many of us feel the everyday stresses fall away when we take a drive out of the city and into nature. A trip to the beach or the bush, or simply spending time in the garden, or on the golf course can be just what we need to replenish our minds and feel more relaxed. It is well known that being in nature makes us feel this way, but why?
When considering the effects that nature has on the brain, it is worth considering that humans were not designed to live in an urban environment. In fact, if you reflect on the millions of years that it took for humans to evolve from apes to where we are today, it is not surprising that spending more time in nature can have a positive impact on our health.
Our day to day lives are hugely reliant on media and technology and, like most things, too much can be detrimental to your wellbeing. Occasional Netflix binge sessions can be great, but when you make a regular habit of screen time, scrolling through social media, or gaming, this can start to effect health and on interactions with others.
Being in nature is thought to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. It is thought to improve our attention span, focus and creativity and our connection with others.
When trying to understand what happens to your brain when you get into nature, the study of the Japanese therapy of shrin-yoku, is a good place to start.
What is forest bathing?
Since the 1990s, the Japanese have studied the physiological and psychological effects of shinrin-yoku – otherwise known as forest bathing. Forest bathing is used as a therapeutic intervention designed to promote wellness and disease prevention. This has become a global trend, with various similar programs now seen across Far Eastern countries, Europe and the USA.
Forest bathing therapy, as the name suggest, takes place within a forest. The Japanese use forests that have been chosen specifically for this purpose and recommend that all five senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch - are engaged when using forest bathing as an intervention. To achieve this, mindfulness practices are encouraged, or activities such walking or hiking¹.
What does forest bathing teach us about the effects of nature?
Several studies have shown forest bathing to reduce stress, depression, anxiety, in addition to strengthening the immune system¹. One study, with 60 participants, researched the impact of walking through a bamboo forest versus a city area for 15 minutes. The forest environment was found to improve mood, reduce anxiety and improve meditation and attention scores².
Other studies have reviewed physiological improvements of nature and forests, by monitoring the autonomic nervous system, blood pressure and different hormones involved in the stress response³. The autonomic nervous system controls functions that happen automatically, such as breathing and digestion. It also controls whether we are in “fight and flight”, or “rest and digest” mode.
Although the reasons for the effects of forest bathing are not conclusively proven through science, it is thought that its benefits are attributed to several factors. Within a forest, people can disconnect from their daily lives, away from the stimulation from artificial lighting, laptops, devices and noise. It frees them from the demands of their busy lifestyles, families and jobs to experience peace and quiet.
The cooler temperate within a forest, together with natural lighting and high-quality air can provide relief for respiratory tract and nervous system. Trees emit oxygen and other chemical compounds which have beneficial effects on human health, protecting brain health and reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. This environment can promote brain health through reducing mental stress and encouraging a relaxed state, improved mood and cognitive function¹.
The effects seen through forest bathing are also seen in other studies focused on the effects of nature on the brain.
Higher order cognitive functions, such as selective attention, problem solving, inhibition and multi-tasking are all used, and can be exhausted, when you get immersed in media and technology. Research has shown that time spent in nature can replenish and restore these functions.
One study explored the impact of four days immersed in nature, away from media and technology. Participants were found to increase their performance on a creativity, problem solving task by 50%⁴.
Mood and behavioural improvements
An EEG is a test that measures electrical activity in the brain. In one study, an EEG was used to record short term excitement, frustration, engagement, long term excitement and meditation. Participants were divided into three groups who each took part in a 25-minute walk in different environments – an urban shopping street, a path through green space and a busy commercial street. The results showed that those in the green space group experienced lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher meditation when moving into the green space zone; and higher engagement when moving out of it⁵.
Being in nature has been shown to be beneficial to your brain health and general wellbeing. Time spent in nature can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, whilst restoring our mental focus, productivity and mood.
BBA (Hons)., BNat., mNMHNZ
Registered Naturopath & Medical Herbalist
¹ Stier-Jarmer, M., Throner, V., Kirschneck, M., Immich, G., Frisch, D., & Schuh, A. (2021). The psychological and physical effects of forests on human health: A systematic review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(4), 1770. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18041770
² Hassan, A., Tao, J., Li, G., Jiang, M., Aii, L., Zhihui, J., Zongfang, L., & Qibing, C. (2018). Effects of walking in bamboo forest and city environments on brainwave activity in young adults. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2018, 1-9. doi: 10.1155/2018/9653857
³ Takayama, N., Morikawa, T., Koga, K., Miyazaki, Y., Harada, K., Fukumoto, K., & Tsujiki, Y. (2022). Exploring the physiological and psychological effects of digital shinrin-yoku and its characteristics as a restorative environment. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(3), 1202. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19031202.
⁴ Atchley, R. A., Strayer, D. L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PLoS ONE, 7(12), e51474. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051474
⁵ Aspinall, P., Mavros, P., Coyne, R., & Roe, J. (2013). The urban brain: Analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(4), 272-276. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-091877