In 2013, neuroscientists made a fascinating discovery. As you read this, there’s a tiny part of your brain — right in the middle, between your ears — that’s on the lookout for snakes[*].
That brain region is called the pulvinar. If you’ve ever jumped at a garden hose or an oddly curved stick, you’ve felt the pulvinar activate. It controls attention, and a part of it is specifically made to detect snakelike shapes.
For millions of years, snake detection was an essential part of human survival. We lived in forests and caves, and the split-second advantage that little brain region gave us was often the difference between life and death.
Today, snakes aren’t a big concern. The average American spends 93% of the day indoors[*]. We’ve traded caves and forests for houses and parks.
But the fact that you have a special snake detection region in your brain proves an interesting point: your brain evolved for the great outdoors.
Humans lived in nature for the vast majority of history. Our species grew up among trees, rocks, rivers, and mountains. Nature is in our DNA — and research suggests that we’d be happier if we spent a little more time in it.
It turns out your brain responds to the natural world in a profound and restorative way. Here’s why nature is good for your brain and how you can get more of it in your daily life.
Your Brain On Nature
Simply being around nature changes your brain in a variety of ways.
When your brain is in a state of relaxed happiness, it produces electrical patterns called alpha brain waves. If you’ve ever tried meditation, you know the feeling alpha brain waves create — a sense of peaceful wellbeing.
Nature increases your alpha brain waves too. A 15-minute walk in the woods boosted people’s alpha brain waves at levels equivalent to meditation[*]. The participants also felt less stressed and anxious post-walk.
Another study found that you don’t even need to be in the woods. Simply looking at photos of nature increased people’s alpha waves more than looking at photos of city streets[*].
If you live near greenery, try adding a couple nature walks to your weekly outline. And if you’re indoors all day, maybe you’ll fill your office with houseplants. It could help you feel more relaxed in your daily life.
Depression and Mood
It’s not just what you see in nature. Your brain responds to fresh air, too.
Plants and trees release sweet-smelling molecules called phytoncides into the air. These compounds make up many of the scents of the forest. The smell of pine trees, the deep scent of damp leaves, the menthol freshness of eucalyptus — they all come from phytoncides.
Next time you’re in nature, stand still, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. You’ll feel your nervous system calm down.
People who spent 20 minutes gardening showed an increase in BDNF, a protein in your brain that improves learning, memory, and long-term brain health[*].
Gardening therapy is also common in brain rehabilitation centers. People with brain injuries heal significantly faster and report higher life satisfaction when they grow gardens[*].
Bring More Nature into Your Life
The easiest way to get in touch with nature is to go for a walk in the woods or a hike. But for a lot of us, that’s not a convenient option.
If you live in the city or suburbs, try bringing nature to you. Buy a few houseplants to create an indoor jungle for yourself. Start a garden, whether it’s in your yard or on your windowsill. Or just sit outside and watch a sunset now and then.
However you do it, find a way to incorporate nature into your daily life. You’ll be happier and healthier for it.