Your brain, patterns and nature
Our brains develop in the context of other brains (Feldman Barrett, 2017). We learn from each other, develop our emotions with a cultural understanding and form relationships. Nonconsciously, our brains are always pedicting. Predicting if we are safe or in danger, even when we are sleeping. This is why patterns develop in our thoughts, feelings and behaviours as our brain prediction based on out past experience, our body sensations and what is happening in our environment.
Patterns are found all through nature and can help adaptation, structure, rigidity and reproduction. Seeking cognitive or behavioural patterns is a natural response so our brain becomes more efficient and conserves energy. Forming patterns and routines can also make it difficult for us to learn, change and adapt as we are going against our brain's wiring. Seeing patterns in nature can help our cognition and self-understanding when we face challenges and dilemmas.
Going out into nature and witnessing patterns can be soothing and restorative for your brain, mind and body.
1. Being in nature decreases stress
It’s clear that bush-walking—and any physical activity—can reduce stress and anxiety. But, there’s something about being in nature that may augment those impacts. In one recent experiment conducted in Japan, participants were assigned to walk either in a forest or in an urban centre (taking walks of equal length and difficulty) while having their heart rate variability, heart rate, and blood pressure measured. The participants also filled out questionnaires about their moods, stress levels, and other psychological measures.
Results showed that those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability (indicating more relaxation and less stress), and reported better moods and less anxiety, than those who walked in urban settings. The researchers concluded that there’s something about being in nature that had a beneficial effect on stress reduction, above and beyond what exercise alone might have produced.
2. Nature makes you happier and less moody
I’ve always found that spending time in nature makes me feel happier, and of course decreased stress may be a big part of the reason why. But, Gregory Bratman, of Stanford University, has found evidence that nature may impact our mood in other ways, too. In one 2015 study, he and his colleagues randomly assigned 60 participants to a 50-minute walk in either a natural setting (rainforest) or an urban setting (along a busy highway). Before and after the walk, the participants were assessed on their emotional state and on cognitive measures, such as how well they could perform tasks requiring short-term memory. Results showed that those who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, rumination (focused attention on negative aspects of oneself), and negative affect, as well as more positive emotions, in comparison to the urban walkers. They also improved their performance on the memory tasks.
3. Nature relieves attention fatigue and increases creativity.
Today, we live with ubiquitous technology designed to constantly pull for our attention. But many scientists believe our brains were not made for this kind of information bombardment, and that it can lead to mental fatigue, overwhelm, and burnout, requiring “attention restoration” to get back to a normal, healthy state. Strayer is one of those researchers. He believes that being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which can then help us be more open to creativity and problem-solving. “When you use your cell phone to talk, text, shoot photos, or whatever else you can do with your cell phone, you’re tapping the prefrontal cortex and causing reductions in cognitive resources,” he says. In a 2012 study, he and his colleagues showed that hikers on a four-day backpacking trip could solve significantly more puzzles requiring creativity when compared to a control group of people waiting to take the same hike—in fact, 47 percent more.
4. Nature may help you to be kind and generous
In a series of experiments published in 2014, Juyoung Lee, GGSC director Dacher Keltner, and other researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the potential impact of nature on the willingness to be generous, trusting, and helpful toward others, while considering what factors might influence that relationship. As part of their study, the researchers exposed participants to more or less subjectively beautiful nature scenes (whose beauty levels were rated independently) and then observed how participants behaved playing two economics games—the Dictator Game and the Trust Game—that measure generosity and trust, respectively. After being exposed to the more beautiful nature scenes, participants acted more generously and more trusting in the games than those who saw less beautiful scenes, and the effects appeared to be due to corresponding increases in positive emotion.
5. Nature makes you “feel more alive”
With all of these benefits to being out in nature, it’s probably no surprise that something about nature makes us feel more alive and vital. Being outdoors gives us energy, makes us happier, helps us to relieve the everyday stresses of our overscheduled lives, opens the door to creativity, and helps us to be kind to others. No one knows if there is an ideal amount of nature exposure, though Strayer says that longtime backpackers suggest a minimum of three days to really unplug from our everyday lives. Nor can anyone say for sure how nature compares to other forms of stress relief or attention restoration, such as sleep or meditation. Both Strayer and Bratman say we need a lot more careful research to tease out these effects before we come to any definitive conclusions.
Feldman Barrett, L. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Macmillan.
Suttie, J. (2021). How nature can make you kinder, happier, and more creative.
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