“A walk in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the
workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental health, according to
an interesting new study of the physical effects on the brain of visiting nature.”
Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times
A host of studies highlight the importance green and growing places on our psyches.
In fact, there’s growing evidence that urban dwellers who are deprived of opportunities
to spend time in green, natural spaces are a risk for their mental health.
But exactly how can a visit to a park — or even just looking at a green plant
in our work space — shift our moods? Does experiencing nature change our brains
in ways that affect our emotional well-being?
According to a new study published last week in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, the answer is yes. In the study, researchers
decided to investigate how a walk might affect the act of brooding — the
broken-record replaying of problems — a familiar mental process that triggers
activity in a specific part of the brain. By tracking activity in that area
of the brain before and after people spent time in nature, researchers realized
they could better understand whether and to what degree nature literally
changes people’s minds.
The results were impressive: Volunteers who strolled along quiet, leafy,
tree-lined paths showed less stress; their minds were soothed and they
experienced meaningful improvements in their mental health — their
“broodiness” scores were significantly lower than volunteers who
walked a long a busy highway with high levels of noise. The nature
walkers did not dwell on the negative issues in their lives as much after their
walks as they did before getting out into nature and strolling around.
The part of their brains that responded to stress were also quieter.
What is it exactly about a walk in the park that’s soothing and can
almost instantly lift our moods? It could be the greenery, the quiet,
the sun, the smells, the relaxing activities that people tend to enjoy
in this kind of setting. It’s probably all of these. But whatever the
source, it’s clear that one solution to relaxing and calmly focusing
our minds so that we can be more creative and productive in our pursuit
of the writing life is to make sure we get a healthy dose of greenery
on a regular basis. Write on!