Written by Dr. Austin Perlmutter, MD
About the Author: Dr Austin Perlmutter is a board-certified internal medicine physician, New York Times bestselling author, published researcher and international educator on how to get the brain unstuck. His writing, presentations, podcasts, and online educational programs explore how environmental factors influence our cognitive and mental state and have reached millions. His free newsletter shares science-backed, practical tools for a better brain.
In the last hundred years, humans have increasingly distanced themselves from nature. Modern day Americans spend over 90% of their day inside offices, houses and vehicles. We’ve largely migrated towards urban centers, and now we spend 11 hours or more a day engaging with our digital devices. What does all this disconnect from the natural world mean for your brain health? Here are 3 science-backed ways time in nature may directly benefit your brain.
Time in nature may improve stuck thought patterns
As we play over the same unhealthy thoughts in our heads time and time again, we can become progressively stuck in them. One example is rumination, a habit of dwelling on negative thoughts that can lead to unhealthy mental states. Research published in 2015 showed that after a 90-minute walk in nature, people reported less rumination.
This research was furthered by a 2020 study showing that 30 minutes in urban nature (compared to a nature-free city area) was linked with enhanced mood and decreased rumination. An interesting additional observation of this study was that the benefits were linked to the experience of awe induced by being around nature.
Nature may help prevent mental strain
In a paper published in Nature Molecular Psychiatry in 2022, researchers compared brain activation patterns in people walking in a forest compared to a busy city street. When they looked at a part of the brain called the amygdala—a key region involved in fear, stress, emotional processing and decision-making—they noticed something interesting. People who spent an hour walking in nature had a decreased amygdala activation compared to those in the city setting. The researchers suggested that this might represent a beneficial effect on stress-related brain, and that “…consequently, it may act as a preventive measure against mental strain…”
Nature may enhance the brain benefits of exercise
Recent work in the journal Nature Scientific Reports indicates that exercising in nature may provide an added bonus to the well-established brain effects of physical activity. In this smaller study, researchers used EEG (electroencephalography) to look at brain waves of people before and after they walked for 15 minutes either indoors or outdoors. They found the outdoor walk was linked with evidence of increased brain function and changes in an EEG recording in a part of the brain linked to focus and memory, concluding “…a brief walk outside results in a greater increase in cognitive function than a short walk inside.”
How to get your brain a dose of nature today
Unlike crash diets or complex exercise regimens, time in nature is sustainable, cheap (if not free) and easy for most people to enjoy. Giving your brain the benefit of “vitamin N” can be as simple as a 20-minute walk in a local park, or taking a lunch or tea break outside. You don’t need to have a specific agenda to benefit from nature either. The idea is simply to be present in nature and to give your brain a break from the hectic modern-day world. For more information on how to “dose” Vitamin N, check out this article.
To learn more about the science of getting your brain unstuck, check out Dr. Austin Perlmutter’s Newsletter HERE.