A new study shows that a walk in the park can change your mind and calms the way mind works, by contributing to better mental health and on the effects of the physical brain during a visit in nature. Most of us live in cities today and spend a lot less time in nature and in areas with green spaces than they did in past generations. Residents of big cities also have an increased risk of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses compared with people living outside urban centers.
These results appear to be linked to some extent, according to the evidence reflected in more and more studies. Residents of cities with limited access to green areas have a higher incidence of psychological problems than those living near parks and also the inhabitants of a city present a lower stress level immediately after visiting natural areas, in compared to people who don’t visit such locations.
But it is not clear how a visit to the park or another green zone may influence disposition. Contact with nature can change the brain in a way which will affect emotional health, says Gregory Bratman, a graduate of Stanford University, who studied the psychological effects of life in the city. In a recent study, he and colleagues have found that volunteers who were doing short rides in areas with greenery from Stanford University campus were much more careful and happier afterward, compared with volunteers who spent the same time while close to heavy traffic. But the study looked at the neurological mechanisms that have no effects on nature.
That’s why, for the second study, published in the works of the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Bratman and his collaborators have decided to analyze more in detail the effect that a walk could have on the process of rumination of thoughts. The rumination of thoughts, phenomenon known among cognitive science researchers and as morbid, rumination is a state of mind known to everybody, we are tempted to chew all sorts of negative thoughts about ourselves or our lives.
This pattern of thinking is neither healthy nor helpful. Is a precursor to depression and is more common in people who live in cities than in those living in remote areas of the urban centers.
But far more interesting for the purpose of the study conducted by Mr. Bratman and his colleagues is that rumination of thoughts is strongly associated with increased activity in areas of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex. Mr. Bratman has come to the conclusion that if researchers would analyze the brain activity of that specific area before and after people visit nature, would understand better whether and to what extent nature influences the brain. Mr. Bratman and colleagues gathered first 38 healthy adults, who lived in the city and asked them to complete a questionnaire in order to determine normal level of morbid rumination.
The volunteers were not allowed to be accompanied or listening to music. And had to walk around at their own pace. After visiting, volunteers returned to the lab and have repeated both quizzes and brain scanning.
As expected, the walk near the highway has not calmed people’s minds. Blood circulation in the area subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and results related to rumination of thoughts remained unchanged. But volunteers who have wandered in a quiet area and bordered by trees showed mild improvement but significant in their mental health, as it showed the results of the questionnaire.
They were no longer as concerned about negative aspects of their lives as before. And present lower circulation of blood to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain was much quieter
These results show “as many natural environments” could be an easy way and almost immediate improvement of mood, says Mr. towns inhabitants. Bratman. Of course, there remain many questions, he said, related to how much time is needed in the ideal for mental health care, as well as what aspects of nature have the effect of relieving the most intense.
It comes to greenery, sunlight, smells of earth, all from one place, or something else that delights us and entertain us? Must walk or do physical activity in order to benefit fully from the advantages? Do we need to be alone or to be with someone to amplify the positive effects upon the soul? “Many studies are needed in this regard,” says Mr. Bratman. But in the meantime, look it, there can be a beneficial to do than ride in the nearest park and take advantage of the chance to positively influence us, even for a short period of time, the subgenual prefrontal cortex.