Can’t stop dwelling on your failures, on everything that you’ve done wrong or that’s gone wrong in your life? Relief may be as close as your nearest park or forest.
In a study researchers hope will have a long-range effect on the way cities are planned and designed, scientists at Stanford University have found that walking in nature can reduce people’s tendency toward rumination, the constant cycling of negative thoughts through your mind. That doesn’t happen during walks in an urban setting.
Lead author Gregory Bratman, a Stanford University graduate student, told university reporters:
This finding is exciting because it demonstrates the impact of nature experience on an aspect of emotion regulation – something that may help explain how nature makes us feel better.
The study joins a growing body of work that shows spending time in natural areas can lead to psychological benefits.
The findings are important in a world that has become increasingly urbanized. More than half the world’s population now lives in or near a city, and experts believe that by 2050, seven out of every 10 people around the world will be urban dwellers. With this increasing urbanization has come a rise in depression and mental health problems — more mood and anxiety disorders and a greater incidence of schizophrenia for city residents — and some scientists believe that our move away from nature may be partly to blame.
To test their hypothesis about the benefits of nature, Stanford researchers asked participants to take a 90-minute walk in a park with open stretches of grass and clumps of oak trees or along a busy, multiple-lane highway.
Afterward, the walkers got brain scans of their subgenual prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain where rumination takes place.
A marked decrease in activity for people assigned the nature walk.
The study builds on previous work by Bratman and other researchers that tested nature’s effect on mood and cognition. In that study, participants who took the nature walk showed significantly decreased anxiety, rumination, and negative affect (negative emotions and poor self-concept), and an increase in positive affect compared to those on the urban walk.
Spending time in a natural setting also seemed to improve some areas of working memory, although the researchers suggest more studies need to be done in this area.
In the earlier study, Bratman cites other work indicating that the effect of time spent in nature may actually be greater as people age.
The researchers hope their findings will lead urban planners to take into account the amounts and types of vegetation, proximity to water, amount of natural sound, and topography when they design the cities of the future, not just for benefits such as water purification and carbon sequestration, but for everyone’s mental health.
Source: Landscape and Urban Planning