Your brain on nature

Getting outside decreases stress while improving focus, memory



People who look at nature scenes have more focus and concentration than those who look at concrete.

ISABELLE BUSCH, Evergreen reporter, columnist

I don’t know about you, but honestly, I haven’t been doing too well lately. Sure, I’m keeping my grades up, but being academically healthy isn’t everything. Coming to campus has been really difficult. I’ve adjusted to cooking my own kibble and doing laundry but haven’t made many friends. I’m sure my plight isn’t unique.

If you’re feeling down, get up and get out the door. It’s been proven that spending time outside improves your mood by combating anxiety and depression. Only 20 minutes in nature significantly reduces levels of cortisol, a primary stress hormone. 

Natural settings have also been shown to improve concentration, cognition and even memory. An Australian study showed that participants who looked at a natural scene for 40 seconds did significantly better on an attention-draining task than those shown a concrete scene.

What could explain the miraculous effects nature has on our brains? Famed naturalist Edward O. Wilson proposed the biophilia hypothesis.

Essentially, Wilson argued that since humans evolved in nature, they possess an innate affinity for it. His reasoning appears to be solid. Multiple studies have found that looking at an image of nature or listening to a natural sound, like crickets or waves crashing on a shore, calms the human mind and body.

Personally, I always have nature on the brain — makes sense that I’m a biology major.

Perhaps the benefits nature offers can be attributed simply to its appearance. Nature is predominantly green, a psychologically calming color. Live indoor plants have been proven to improve productivity, and it’s no surprise. Green lowers heart rate and improves focus. By decreasing stress, it recharges your brain’s capacity to do amazing things. 

I find that even when it feels like I have no time, spending a few minutes outside means that later I understand my homework better and finish sooner than if I hadn’t taken a break.

To increase the benefits you reap from your time outside, get moving! Exercise lowers levels of cortisol and its cousin, epinephrine. It also releases mood-boosting endorphins. Most importantly, exercise makes your body practice combatting repeated physical stress. When your body is accustomed to dealing with physical stress, it handles mental stress more effectively.

It’s recommended you get around 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day. Between walking to classes and the uphill tendencies of Pullman, you’re probably most of the way there! I’ve also been enjoying taking a spin class and a Les Mills weightlifting class at the Student Recreation Center. Even though they’re less than an hour, I always leave feeling optimistic and energized.

Hiking combines the best of both worlds. By exercising in nature, you’re taking advantage of all the benefits that green surroundings, nature’s soundtrack and physical activity have to offer. There are beautiful hidden hiking destinations around Pullman, including Kamiak Butte, the Bill Chipman Palouse Trail and Idler’s Rest Nature Preserve.

However, you don’t have to go on a destination hike to benefit. Simply walking around campus or spending a break between classes on a bench shaded by a green canopy has a huge impact. 

Even on the worst days, a glimpse of a perching kestrel or the singing of a nuthatch never fails to put a smile on my face. In nature, curiosities abound, and they take my mind off what really won’t mean a thing in the long term. 

Nature keeps my worries in perspective so I can enjoy what matters: the here and now. Turns out your mom knew what she was talking about all those times she kicked you out of the house to get some fresh air.