How nature affects your brain

A call of the wild

Have you ever noticed that people that spend lots of time outside are naturally more grounded, relaxed and calm?  This does not stem only from a persons character or personality, or natural tendencies, there is a scientific explanation for this, as studied by cognitive psychologist David Strayer, and reported in an article by the National Geographic.

It’s no surprise that nature does our overstressed brains a favour.  Our brains, aren’t invincible, tireless, 3 pound processing machines, they are prone to fatigue.  Slowing down and stopping the busy work while appreciating the natural surroundings leaves us feeling restored and also improves our cognitive performance.


Nature lowers stress on a wild west coast beach. How can you not feel calm in this environment?

Nature lowers stress on a wild west coast beach. How can you not feel calm in this environment?

Three day test

When Strayer was camping with a group of 22 psychology students in Utah, he explained to them the “three day effect”.  In three days, a type of mental “cleaning” occurs after being immersed in nature long enough.  In fact, a test of Outward Bound participants showed that they performed 50 per cent better on creative tests after three days of backpacking in the wilderness.  Strayer also measured brain waves to prove this, by hooking himself and his students to an EEG. The results showed that nature quiets the activity in the prefrontal cortex, our brains main command center, proving what we feel after being outdoors.

Have you noticed how you feel after a few days out in the wild?  You feel recalibrated, you notice things, smells and sights that you were not attune to before.  There seems to be a difference in qualitative thinking. Strayer hypothesizes that it’s linked to the brain’s main command center, called the prefrontal cortex to rest much like an over exerted muscle will. This means that nature primarily reduces stress.

The larch trees and an alpine stream in the Rocky Mountains.

The larch trees and an alpine stream in the Rocky Mountains.


To gain benefits from the healing powers of nature is not even as hard as you think. It doesn’t always have to be from a three day backpacking trip or hiking up a mountain in the wilderness.  It’s as simple as walking through your urban park, walking along the river in the city.  Urban planners know this: so many big cities have urban parks, take New York for instance.

The highline in Manhattan are beautiful suspended gardens, in the heart of the concrete jungle, built on an old train trestle.  The train trestle could have been destroyed and replaced with another skyscraper, but it was made into a garden instead. It’s no coincidence that this was done. Many other cities have done the same.


The Highline gardens in Manhattan provide a nature escape amongst the busy city life.

The Highline gardens in Manhattan provide a nature escape amongst the busy city life.


Many studies have found that less death and disease occur among people that live near parks or green spaces, regardless of whether they use them or not, patients in hospitals recover faster if they have a view of a park, those who have a green view do better in school and display less violent behaviours in neighbourhoods where those types of behaviours are common.  Measurements of stress hormones, breathing, hearth rate and sweating all slow down after only a short dose of nature. This can be as simple as a picture of nature!  It causes people to calm down and perform better.

At the end of the day, we come to spend time in nature, parks and the wild not because scientific evidence proves that it does something for us, but because of how it makes us feel!

If you want to learn more, read this excellent article by Florence Williams on National Geographic.

Also check out this hilarious video, the Nature prescription, about how nature helps our stress levels.

How does being out in the wilderness make you feel?


Alicja is an economist, enjoys climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, cycling and gets out into the backcountry as much as possible. See all of Alicja's Blog Posts
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