Nature: our very own infinite well of health and well-being.

It’s been a very cold, wet and windy winter to date! So much so that we’ve found ourselves bundling up into so many layers that at times we worried that if we tripped while playing nature games we’d be easily mistaken for a perpetually rolling woodland tumbleweed gathering leaves, mud and twigs on our merry way around the woods! The cold weather however hasn’t altered our spirits, in the woods there is still a joyful spring in our steps, a happy smile on our faces and signs of contentment in our voices.

Recently, we came across a fascinating study in which two groups of people either went on an hour long walk in an urban environment or an hour long walk in a natural environment, a woodland for example. Following their ‘adventures’ they engaged in various intelligence and psychological tests. The group who walked in a natural environment scored significantly higher on all tests, had improved memory and attention and…….(this is our favourite bit) were less anxious AND felt better psychologically.

If you consider this critically you may think the second group may have already had some intellectual advantages, maybe they’d taken the tests before, eaten a ‘brain-breakfast’ or somehow had another advantage? As somebody who has a particular interest in research we checked the study for limitations and flaws but it was done to a high standard and every difference in the groups was accounted for, they were evenly matched on scores of every kind, intelligence, age, gender, level of education and ability.

The design of the study was robust meaning that the difference in scores really could be

attributed to the contrasting walks they embarked on before the test. It was not only this study, there are countless studies which demonstrate the effects that being outdoors has on our brains, particularly our psychological well-being. We also know from experience and from our own work at CommuniTree: we almost always (we’re not super human and also have bad days too) feel happier and more peaceful after a day in the woods. It’s evident too in the people who join us; joy is etched in their smiles, happiness rings out from from their words and cheers and a desire for more of the mood enhancing dopamine and serotonin that nature offers in their pleas of “can we stay longer, or come again”.

We know this magic happens while spenfing time in the great outdoors, I’m sure you do too, but why?

Why does spending time in nature have such a positive impact on your cognition? Why is it better for your psychological health? How can being in a natural environment be better for our brains than being in a city?

We began to search for reasons that could explain this and came across a theory called the ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ (ART).

ART suggests people benefit from time spent in nature because of the affect it has on your brain. Urban environments, the ones we spend time in every single day are busy, hectic, frantic, complicated, overwhelming, stimulating and overloaded with things to look at, hear, smell and make sense of.

They require our brains to work hard to constantly decode and process what is around us, in psychological terms it is demanding on our involuntary and voluntary attention control. Our involuntary and voluntary attention is a process in our brains which enables us to walk along the street and filter out anything irrelevant that we don’t need to be directly aware (somebody cutting hedges, the smell of petrol or a dog playing in a garden) and process all the things we definitely do need to be aware of to survive (cars whizzing past us, where the pavement starts and ends).

Every moment we are awake our brains work hard to process our environments in this way and urban environments with cars, enormous buildings, crowds, loud noises, technology, busy roads and hundreds of shops are over stimulating and demanding on this process.

Alternatively, natural environments such as woodlands, forests, rivers and lakes have the opposite effect on our brains. The stimuli in a natural environment is referred to as ‘soft’ because our brains find it easier to decode and process what we are seeing and experiencing. In other words, it is much easier for our brains to process the wonder and beauty of nature, rather than the complexities of our urban worlds. Our deep connection and innate affinity with nature and our ancestral pasts can evoke a sense of fascination and a deep sense of connection to the natural world.

Quite simply, our brains aren’t having to work as hard to decode what is happening around us and choose what to filter out. In a natural environment, our depleted attention centres have been given time to replenish, our brains are less aroused and we are able to reflect and find beauty in the stillness of our brains, a little like meditation. Therefore, after spending time in natural environments we are less likely to feel stressed and we are more likely to feel calm, rested, happier, restored psychologically and more able to cope with stressful situations. Here’s the wonderfully amazing part: all of this is happening without us even knowing!! Deep in our ancestral roots fifty thousand generations of living in the natural world still act as a heart centre for our wellbeing, still unflawed by the more recent five hundred generations worth of urban living.

At CommuniTree we see the effects that spending time in nature has on people every day, one of our main goals is to reconnect people with nature in an urban world as we know the importance for our bodies and our brains: people leave us happier, calmer, refreshed and restored. Spending time in nature is not just a nice thing to do, there is scientific evidence which demonstrates why this is beneficial to our psychological well-being, and when people have meaningful, positive and memorable experiences in nature they are more likely to care and protect it for future generations ensuring that the well of health and happiness that we call nature is sustained for many generations yet to come.

Rhiannon Matthews

Further Information

Bratman, G. N., Daily, G. C., Levy, B. J., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, 138, 41-50.

Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of nature contact for children. Journal of Planning Literature, 30(4), 433-452.

Davis, J. (2004). Psychological benefits of nature experiences: An outline of research and theory. Nuropa University and School of Lost Borders (available at: http://www. johnvdavis. com/ep/benefits. htm).

Henderson, B., & Vikander, N. (Eds.). (2007). Nature first: Outdoor life the friluftsliv way. Dundurn.

Kahn, P. H., & Kellert, S. R. (2002). Children and nature: Psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations. MIT Press.

McCarthy, M. (2015) The Moth Snowstorm; Nature and Joy. Murray Publications.

Roe, J., & Aspinall, P. (2011). The restorative outcomes of Forest School and conventional school in young people with good and poor behaviour. Urban forestry & urban greening, 10(3), 205-212.

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