A Walk in Nature – What’s in it for my Mind?

With increased urbanization and demographic shift from rural to urban areas, more and more people are getting alienated from nature. At the same time, with each passing year, the number of people taking medication or visiting psychiatrist due to depression, mood disorder and other mental illness is on a steep rise. Is there a link between our mental health and nature? If so, how does nature influence an individual’s mood and emotion? Is it the ultimate prescription for depression?

Living a Life Decoupled from Nature

According to WHO, about 54 percent of the world population reside today in urban areas and this estimate is speculated to scale to 70 percent by 2050. Increased urbanization has led to larger distancing and disconnection from nature and a corresponding shoot-up in anxiety disorder, depression and other psychological illness.

In fact, it is reported that, compared to rural people, urban dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders. In addition, it is observed that, people born and brought-up in city environment have a higher chance of developing schizophrenia.

In order to quantify the impact of nature on mental health, Stanford researchers set forth on a simple but interesting exercise. They wanted to know whether time spend in nature will influence rumination, that is, repetitive thought focused on negative aspect of the self – a known risk factor for mental illness.

“We want to explore what elements of nature – how much of it and what types of experiences – offer the greatest benefits,’’ says Gretchen Daily, Professor in Environmental Science, Stanford University.

Natural vs. Urban Environment – Which is Better for Mind?

Researchers pooled-in thirty eight healthy individuals and randomly assigned a 90 minute walk either in a natural environment or an urban environment. Each member of the first group (19 participants) was asked to take an individual walk along a foot path adjacent to a traffic-heavy four-lane, while the members of the second group (19 participants) were requested to walk in a grassland area sprinkled with oak trees and shrubs.

In order to keep track of the physiological and mental changes undergone during the 90 minute walk, the participant’s heart and respiration rates were measured, their brains scanned and questionnaires filled out before and after the walk.

Researchers found that there were not much physiological changes in both the groups, but a larger significant change in the neural activity in the brain. After the walk, participants who took a walk in nature reported lower rumination compared to those who walked in an urban setting.

The brain scans after the walk, showed reduced neural activity in subgenual prefrontal cortex region – an area of the brain known for mental illness, among the nature walkers while no such changes were observed among urban walkers.

“This finding is exciting because it demonstrates the impact of nature experience on an aspect of emotion regulation – something that may help explain how nature makes us feel better,’’ says Gregory Bratman from Stanford University.

Impact of Blue and Green Spaces

In another study from University of Minnesota, researchers say, green and “blue’’ spaces – environments with running or still water, are very beneficial for healthy aging in seniors. It is observed that, green and blue spaces promote feelings of renewal, restoration, and spiritual connectedness.

“We zoomed in to everyday life for seniors between the ages of 65 and 86. We discovered how a relatively mundane experience, such as hearing the sound of water or a bee buzzing among flowers, can have a tremendous impact on overall health,’’ says Jessica Finlay, the lead author of the paper. “Accessibility to everyday green and blue spaces encourages seniors to simply get out of the door. This in turn motivates them to be active physically, spiritually and socially, which can offset chronic illness, disability and isolation.’’

The positive impact the blue and green spaces have on elders well beingness, demands a change in urban planning. By incorporating small features like a koi pond or a bench with a view of flowers, etc into the public health and urban development strategies, nature can be optimized as a health resource for older adults.

Bringing Nature Back into Cities

“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,’’ says Gretchen Daily, “Our findings can help inform the growing movement worldwide to make cities more livable, and to make nature more accessible to all who live in them.’’

Assessing and quantifying the true value of natural resources to public health is essential and research studies like these, help policy makers and urban planners in predicting the benefits from making investments in nature.

But more research is required in refining our understanding of the psychological ecosystem services that nature provides and how its impact on mind varies with biophysical attributes of natural land- and seascapes, frequency, duration and type of exposure.

Already, city planners and urban designers in cities of certain countries have started incorporating the nature’s benefits into their urban design. In these designs, areas around buildings like schools and public areas of green spaces are treated as important aspects of city planning and are perceived as centers for reducing stress, improving mental health and cognitive functioning.

References-

1. “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation’’, Gregory N. Bratman, J. Paul Hamilton, Kevin S. Hahn, Gretchen C. Daily, and James J. Gross, PNAS, June 29, 2015.

2. “Therapeutic landscapes and wellbeing in later life: Impacts of blue and green spaces for older adults“, Jessica Finlaya, Thea Franke, Heather McKay, Joanie Sims-Gould, Health and Place, Volume 34, July 2015.

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