Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
Nature in the brain

Today’s blog comes from Kelsey Fenwick, Senior Naturalist at Blue Lake Provincial Park.

Growing up in a small town in Ontario, I always loved and appreciated the natural world.

Interestingly, I spent most of my life appreciating nature from a distance.

Although my hometown of Dryden is surrounded by a beautiful boreal forest, for most of my life I was content with the familiarity of paved streets and the “safety” I perceived as being within the city limits.

I was always nervous about straying “off the beaten path”; You would never find me camping in the countryside or hiking on a trail more than a kilometer long.

This all changed for me after high school when I got a summer job working outdoors. The thought of having to venture off that well-known and beaten path was really intimidating, but I’m so glad I took the opportunity because it changed the course of my life and career.

I realized how good I felt after getting home from work.

Go outdoors

At home I found myself reaching less for the TV remote and more for my outdoor shoes.

I began paying attention to my mood while working on office days versus field days and noticed that field days produced a strong sense of satisfaction, a mood boost, and an unparalleled sense of restoration.

moment of zen,

My interest in psychology and mental health led me to delve deeper into this phenomenon.

I began to seek an understanding of the relationship between nature and our human health and well-being.

Why does it feel so good to be outdoors and what really happens to our brains and bodies when we are exposed to nature?

Taking it all in

There is a lot of information out there encouraging us to get outdoors for health and wellbeing purposes, whether that be outdoor exercise, camping, fishing, rowing or, more recently, forest bathing.

    Person fishing on the shore

All these activities take us out of our routine and lead us to an invigorating experience. No wonder we feel better afterwards!

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Even if you’re simply looking at photos or videos of landscapes and natural features, looking out your office window to look at the trees, or listening to the sounds of nature, it still has a positive influence on our well-being.

Let’s dig a little deeper

Over the past 200 years or so, the process of urbanization has changed the dynamics of community life around the world. Human beings went from smaller communities spread across rural areas to having large populations residing in increasingly smaller urban spaces.

wooded camping with tent

This modern urban environment constantly demands our attention; City life really exercises our brain.

In addition to making our brains work harder, these environments also prevent full recovery from the constant onslaught of sensory input. Luckily, nature provides us with a means to recover from physical and psychological stress.

rock ridge trail,

Our nervous system is in charge of functions we normally don’t pay much attention to: heartbeat, digestion, blood pressure, and more.

It has two different parts, like two sides of the same coin: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. A healthy nervous system has a balance in which both parts work together without too much of one or the other.

Do you feel fickle?

Our sympathetic nervous system (SANS) It’s in charge of our “fight or flight” stress response, that feeling of tension and anxiety we get when we’re overwhelmed or feel like we’re in danger.

It activates your heart rate to speed it up, delivering more blood to the areas of your body that need more oxygen and increasing adrenaline to help you get out of danger. Too much time spent in “fight or flight” can negatively affect our physical and mental health.

Female with dog on leash on Fen Lake Trail,

Our parasympathetic nervous system (PANS) does the opposite. It is responsible for our “rest and digest” state, for feelings of relaxation and satisfaction. This system relaxes your body after a period of stress or danger and initiates our life-support processes (such as digestion) during times when you feel safe and relaxed.

Unfortunately, our nervous system has not yet adapted to this busy and exciting urban environment. We’ve only had to deal with it for a small portion of our human existence!

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person paddling a canoe

Our brain doesn’t necessarily know the difference between rush hour traffic in Toronto and being chased by a predator; it simply responds to the threat by restricting our digestion and increasing our heart rate and adrenaline levels.

Even if that threat is just a traffic jam or a stressful meeting!

Instead, natural environments provide us with the right sights, sounds, and smells to trigger the opposite state of rest and digestion. It allows us to recover from a stressful sensory experience.

Beyond the physical health benefits, research shows strong evidence that our overall mood and emotional state can be improved through exposure to nature.

Just looking at images of nature triggers more activity in the brain regions responsible for empathy and pleasure.

Give your brain a break

The other part of nature’s impact on our brain and body is the effect on our cognition.

Footprints in the sand at Blue Lake Beach

Cognition is our brain function: our ability to acquire knowledge and information and use it in our daily lives. It includes functions such as memory, attention, information processing, and pattern recognition.

When we are in natural spaces, the lack of stressful stimuli means our brains don’t have to use as much cognitive energy to keep up with our surroundings. Think about the contrast between a trail through a quiet forest and a busy city street – it’s not hard to imagine where our brain feels calmest!

Natural scenes or spaces capture our attention and activate all our senses without consuming too much mental energy.

This mix of fascination and involuntary attention is the ideal point for our brain to rest and, at the same time, restore our ability to deal with the stress and pressure found in our daily lives. The positive effect of natural spaces on our cognition has been shown to last up to weeks after exposure.

silhouette of a person looking towards the beach/swimming area at sunset

With a new understanding of how nature positively influences our brains and bodies, let’s get out and enjoy Ontario’s beautiful natural spaces!

Find your nearest park or protected area!

And don’t forget to check the Healthy Parks Healthy People website to learn more about nature’s role in our human health and well-being.