It may seem like a no-brainer that a quiet stroll through nature will calm you down and cheer you up, but researchers now have a study that documents the difference it makes on the brain. With more than half of all Americans living in urban areas now -- which is expected to rise to 70% by 2050 -- it is important to know if city life is driving us crazy.
The research is explained in a New York Times story identified as trending and hot by Lead Stories' Trendolizer. The Times summarizes the work of Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University. (NYT is a pay site that allows you just 10 free stories a month without a subscription.)
Bratman tested city-dwellers who rarely walk in the woods, but often are exposed to the rush and noise of highways. He also looked at their current level of "brooding," the mental process "known among cognitive scientists as morbid rumination, is a mental state familiar to most of us, in which we can't seem to stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives," according to the Times. "This broken-record fretting is not healthy or helpful. It can be a precursor to depression and is disproportionately common among city dwellers compared with people living outside urban areas, studies show."
The part of the brain associated with such brooding is believed to be the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is the area Bratman closely monitored.
Bratman sent half of his test subjects on a 90-minute walk through a natural environment, and the other half along an urban route. Brain scans taken before and after their walks revealed decreased blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex in subjects who walked through nature, but no change in those who walked along a highway.
"We show in healthy participants that a brief nature experience, a 90-min walk in a natural setting, decreases both self-reported rumination and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), whereas a 90-min walk in an urban setting has no such effects on self-reported rumination or neural activity," the abstract of Bratman's study said. "In other studies, the sgPFC has been associated with a self-focused behavioral withdrawal linked to rumination in both depressed and healthy individuals."
"This study reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world," the researchers conclude.
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