Tree huggers are smarter


More and more people are moving to live in urban areas. It’s said that in 2050 even 70 percent of people would be living in cities. That inevitably leads to decrease of nature time. It’s a real bummer because of all the beneficial effects, that forest bathing has on our overall health and wellbeing.

Direct attention failure

Urbanization forces us to think about the wellbeing of our brain. In this screen-based world, our brain must work hard to eliminate the features of web pages that are of little relevance to the information that we are trying to find. Even if these continuing distractions wouldn’t be enough, but our brain must also make increasing number of little everyday decisions. The amount of choices in our modern society is just overwhelming. That consumes the energy of our cognitive brain, which oversees planning, abstract thinking, creativity and cognitive flexibility.

That same part of our brain is also involved in self-control issues. We can only imagine, what happens when the energy is low in that area of the brain, which controls our unhealthy cravings. Our self-control diminishes and it causes problems like overeating, overspending and impulsive or risky behavior.

This kind of directed attention failure could be remedied by environmental settings, that are softly fascinating and effortlessly engage the inhabitants. Forest bathing in parks or other natural environments would be appropriate medicine.

Do mini forest bathing to feel more comfortable, relaxed and natural?

Studies have shown, that less contact with nature, seems to remove some of the layers protecting us against psychological stress. Restricted nature connection, especially in younger age, diminish our capability to cognitive rejuvenation. Kids in the nature kindergartens, have been found to be more alert, better in using their bodies and significantly more likely to invent games of their own.

There was a research, that was done in Japan (2015), where test subjects spent 3 minutes in the same room with either artificial pansies or real living pansies. The results concerning the psychological effects of viewing pansies for 3 minutes were unbelievable. Findings indicate, that 3 minutes with real pansies made test subjects to feel more comfortable, relaxed and natural. The difference between real and artificial ones was statistically significant.

Can you find little piece of nature during your workday and 3 minutes of time? I know you can and that’s a real fast food for your brain.

Rumination and stressing over everything?

Do you have work-related rumination? Are you stressing over things, that haven’t even occurred or are you simply overloaded by some events, that are obsessively replaying in your mind? That kind of thinking pattern has been associated with a range of negative health and wellbeing issues.

Research has shown that people who ruminate find it difficult to stay focused and maintain their attention on the task at hand. I believe, that you can relate to that. Cognitive processes such as planning, working memory, mental flexibility, analyzing are all affected by this unhealthy pondering.

Stress loves this kind of monopoly on thinking. The longer this awfulizing of events goes on, the more the incorrect belief is amplified. We believe, that this must be true, because it is happening in our head, in brains! But thoughts are not real, only experiences.

When we have these exhausting thoughts, that make us feel overloaded at work, one part in our brains is really active: subgenual prefrontal cortex. Again, I would love to tell you about one study made in Stanford University. This research was started with questionnaire, that measured the normal level of rumination in test subjects. Also, the blood flow in participants’ subgenual prefrontal cortex was examined.

After these test, half of the participants strolled 90 minutes along quiet tree-lined pathway. The other half walked same time next to a loud highway.

The results of the study were, again, fascinating. Test scores in questionnaires of nature strollers’ showed meaningful improvement in mental stamina. Also, the blood flow in subgenual prefrontal cortex was diminished. The part of our brain, that does catastrophizing and “what-ifing”, was quieter after forest bathing.

Nature puts things into right perspective

In our hectic modern lifestyle, we often try to keep all the strings in our hands and control everything. When we fail to do this, it causes stress. Going to nature and noticing, that there is a whole wide world outside you, puts things into perspective.

There are two aspects in nature, that are particularly important. First one is the experience itself. You can leave the interpretation at the office and concentrate on experience as it is. Use all your senses and leave out the rationalizing.

Another one is the continuity and deep connection with nature. Let your selfdom be adjustable and expand into your natural surroundings. Feel having all the space you need and connect with the scenery. Leave it up to nature to put things into perspective, if your mind tries to take over. Remember, your thoughts are not real, only experience is.

Forest bathing and creativity

The creative part of our brain is blooming, when we are in nature. Nature offers us soft fascination, such as birdsong and water flow. Our attention is drawn to these things effortlessly.

Have you ever just laid down and watched the clouds moving across the sky? After you have settled yourself, you can watch those clouds as you were mesmerized. You won’t get bored, there might be thoughts popping in your mind, but they’ll come and go. Your mind is free to wander, but not drained. You are in a kind of a flow state and giving your cognitive brain a break.

The feeling of continuity and expanding ourselves into the nature, makes our thinking more expansive too. We may find different points of view and think outside the box. In research of psychological and cognitive effects of the outdoors, it was found that nature can sharpen our minds. The participants had a four-day hiking trip to nature. Before and also afterwards their hiking trip, they took a creativity and problem-solving test. After time spent in nature, their performance was increased by 50 percent.

If you have a hectic and demanding workweek ahead, it would be beneficial to do some forest bathing in the form of camping on the preceding weekend.

Nature environment and cognitive skills

Our cognitive abilities are not fixed for the lifetime rather we can improve them with some lifestyle changes. Spending time in nature is one of them. There have been numerous researches, that support the idea, that interaction with nature improves attention and memory. Research paper published in Psychological Science in 2008 studies this phenomenon even further. (Check out blog post about links between nature and memory HERE)

In the study, The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature, the restorative effects on cognitive functions were studied in natural versus urban environments. The focus was on directed attention, which has huge role in cognitive and emotional functions. Direct attention impacts for example on one’s short term memory and school success.

First the participants did a mood test and then a backwards digit-span task, where they had to repeat digit sequences in backward order. Sequences were three to nine digits long. In this test participants kind of had to move things in and out of their attentional focus. After that they performed more cognitive tasks to further their fatigue.

When all the tests were done, participants were divided in two groups. The other one had a 50-minute walk in nearby park and the other group in downtown streets. Then they were tested again. First of all, the mood of nature walkers improved significantly compared to the city dwellers.

Secondly, nature walkers test scores in backwards digit-span task improved by 19 percent and results were coherent when repeating the test. City dwellers did not improve their scores in convergent way. This experiment was repeated and test scores didn’t correlate with changes in mood. Hence it wasn’t the mood that impacted on the capacity of brain, it was nature. Forest bathing matters!

Is there link between nature pictures and cognitive skills?

This same research group conducted also another study where participants were shown nature or city pictures. Both groups had equally peaceful surroundings to watch pictures, yet only viewing pictures of nature produced cognitive improvements.

Nature captures our attention effortlessly and unnoticed. That limits the use of our direct attention and gives our cognitive brain time to breath and recover. This has been known among writes and philosophes for ages. No costs, no side-effects and available to everybody.

Four components of cognitively restorative environment

There are four main aspects, that affect the degree our brain can recover in natural settings. First one is being away. This can be physical, like visiting park, or reframing our current environment by changing the direction of our attention. Shift you focus away from meeting diary or Excel sheets to nature view in window, forest scenery on your wall, nature scenery on the screen… Or simply, just close your eyes and go for a forest adventure.

Second factor is fascination. I don’t believe, that anyone can argue not being fascinated by natural world. We love to watch clouds moving through the sky, touch round shaped beautiful stones, enjoy sunsets or ladybugs. These things grab our attention in soft way, without struggle, They give us more than they take.

Thirdly there needs to be extent. It means, that the natural settings need to have depth, dimension and sense of space. Maybe compelling coiled pathway, that promises you some adventure. In the light of this aspect, it would be better to connect with a picture of nature scenery than living plant. But in many workplaces, you can do both!

The last one is compatibility. Natural environment must coincide with your intentions and make you feel satisfied. Great nature place to recharge your brain, fulfills your expectations effortlessly.

Thank you for having time to read about forest bathing and the effects it has on our brain functions. Now I’m of to four-days boating trip alongside the coast of western Finland. Lots of nature, forests, water and play!

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