Your brain on nature

Everyone knows that a breath of fresh air feels great. But research shows that spending time outside can also boost your mood, memory, and cognition.

A woman sitting on a park bench

It probably comes as no surprise that spending time outside is good for your physical health. Research shows it can even lower your blood pressure and heart rate.

But the benefits may go well beyond getting a healthier body. The great outdoors can have a calming influence — including reducing anxiety and stress — while also improving memory and cognition. So, what is it about nature that makes our minds work better?

“There are a lot of theories out there, but the story I tell is that we evolved with nature to have an affinity for it,” says Peter James, Sc.D., M.P.H. He’s an assistant professor of environmental health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. When your attention is focused on a phone or computer screen, he explains, it makes it harder for your mind to process information.

Being outside, enjoying nature, can be an antidote to that brain drain. “When we’re out in nature watching the trees sway, it allows us to replenish our attention and be ready for the next cognitive task,” James says.

But being in the great outdoors isn’t just a way to revive your mind for the next job to be done. Enjoying the natural world can have long-lasting benefits for both your mental and cognitive well-being.

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How nature improves your mental health

Being outside has been scientifically proven to improve your mood. Think of it as a natural — and free — stress buster. Several large review studies show that being outdoors may help bring down cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a hormone that the body releases to help deal with stress. The lower your cortisol levels, the less stressed you feel.

Being in leafy green spaces can also help relieve feelings of anxiety and depression. One small U.K. study explored the role of nature as a treatment for these two common mental health issues. It found that nature helped people feel happier and more relaxed.

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The cognitive benefits of being outside

Reducing stress, depression, and anxiety may take a load off your mind, but the brain-boosting benefits of nature don’t stop there. For example, a walk on a cold, brisk day can recharge the brain as well as walking in sunshine.

One study from the U.K. suggests that being in nature may help improve focus and attention too. And researchers from the University of Chicago also found evidence that spending time in nature could help improve your working memory, cognitive flexibility, and ability to choose what to pay attention to and what to ignore (attentional control).

Need another reason to grab your keys and leave your house? One 2022 study showed that people with the lowest risk of developing dementia spent an average of one and a half hours a day outside: two hours a day in the summer months and one hour a day in winter.

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A little bit of nature can go a long way

Keep in mind that you can reap the benefits of nature no matter where you live. You don’t have to find a nearby forest or a national park. Anywhere with some flora, fauna, or birds singing can enhance your brain.

Here are some easy ways to bring some greenery into your everyday life:

  • Take a daily walk outside and appreciate the trees lining the sidewalk, your neighbor’s well-mowed lawn, or the colorful flowers in a garden. If you’re a city dweller, that might mean going for a stroll in a park or grabbing lunch in an urban oasis.
  • Give yourself a quick break by enjoying your own backyard, taking a stroll down the sidewalk or walking at a local park.
  • Do a little research to find nearby places you may not have known about — like a nature reserve, community garden, or hiking trail.
  • Change up your exercise routine by walking or jogging outside or doing yoga or stretching in a quiet green space. (Don’t have a regular workout routine? Consider starting one.)
  • Engage with your surroundings. Smell some flowers, gaze at the greenery, listen to the world around you. The sounds of nature can influence your mental well-being too.
  • Make it social. Plan a regular outdoor gathering with a few friends. Take turns choosing the locale. Or, if you’re looking to expand your friend group, try joining an existing group via apps like Meetup or Walk2Connect.

Next time you need a lift, head outside and let nature work for you. You’ll be giving your mental, physical, and emotional health a naturally beneficial boost.  

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Additional sources:
Blood pressure and heart rate: Environmental Research
Nature and stress relief: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Study on focus and attention: Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health
Research on nature and memory: Current Directions in Psychological Science
Dementia risk and time outdoors study: BMC Medicine
Memory function and nature: Current Directions in Psychological Science
Walking in nature and brain: Molecular Psychiatry