Your Brain on Nature: A New Mental Health Strategy for YSU

By Jillian Smith

Henry David Thoreau, the author of the famous essay entitled Civil Disobedience, which inspired the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, wrote the majority of his work while living in a tiny cabin with few essentials in a forest crowned with a small water body known as Walden Pond.

Apart from penning his much-loved work, Thoreau made the following remark of the pond and the natural settings surrounding him, “…in wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Many consider the phrase to have been the first spark of the environmentalist movement, but Thoreau was by no means the first individual to have identified the idea of human wellness being tied to a connection to nature. Cyrus the Great believed as such when he ordered the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to be built, and Fredrick Law Olmstead, a contemporary of Thoreau’s and chief mind behind the creation of Central Park, noted that, “…the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character … is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect.”

The concept of the natural world being directly beneficial to our humanity was understood anecdotally. What none of these men had, however, was concrete evidence to back up their claim. When we spend time in nature, they noted, and we still note, something seems to happen within us that makes us feel more at peace and lightens our mood.

But the assertions these men provided was based on a hunch, and not scientific evidence. Thanks to recent developments in neuroscience and psychology, however, there is much to support the idea that people spending time in nature has positive mental health and even some physical health benefits. It turns out that there is a reason walks in Mill Creek Park and watching sunsets make us feel good.

One of the main benefits, according to research done by a psychologist at the University of Utah is that nature forces our mind to stop running on half empty. Our brain, David Strayer of the university claims, is like a muscle, which can get fatigued from overuse. Nature, he says, gives our brains the recharge it needs to get back to work.

In an experiment, Strayer had students complete a series of creative problem solving. He then took the students on a three-day hiking trip through the wilderness of Utah. He again administered problem solving tasks and found a 50 percent improvement in the completion of the tasks.

The difference has something to do with what Atlantic writer Adam Atler calls “Attention Restorative Theory,” and he explains it this way:

“The difference between natural and urban landscapes is how they command our attention. While man-made landscapes bombard us with stimulation, their natural counterparts give us the chance to think as much or as little as we’d like and the opportunity to replenish exhausted mental resources.”

While cities and suburbs have laptops and cars that force us to be in control, he essentially claims nature, in a way, puts our brain in the backseat and takes us along for a ride.

This restorative quality can even be seen on a chemical basis. Japanese researchers in 2010 had test subjects divided into two groups; one that regularly took walks in the city, and another that regularly took walks in the forest. The forest walkers on average had dramatically decreased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. High cortisol levels can lead to all kind of health complications, including high blood pressure, high nerve sensitivity and even heart disease. Numerous other studies have shown that increased time in nature has a direct effect on decreasing incidences of depression, ADD symptoms and lessens the effect of sleep disorders.

In fact, the Japanese government long ago realized the mental health benefits of nature, and in 1982, their Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries began a campaign called “shinrin-yoku,” which literally means “forest bath.” The campaign encourages people to seek regular trips to the forest as a preventative health measure.

At Youngstown State University, as the administration seeks to intensify its efforts to provide greater mental health services to students, it should not forget to include in that strategy one of the greatest assets to mental health that we have: Mill Creek Park.

Mill Creek Park, as our own Volney Rogers once stated, is a place where, “The pleasure and delight of going to this rock (on which stands Lanterman’s Mill)… with a grand vista of a deep rocky gorge, a rushing stream, a deep pool, a magnificent waterfall, mosses, ferns and evergreens adorning rocks, cliffs and hillsides, is to an appreciative person beyond description.”

That pleasure and delight Rogers spoke of were not mere indulgences to the senses, as science shows us, but can be a key strategy in YSU pairing one of its city’s best assets to one of its greatest needs.


    1. Amazing research paper, Dr. Todor! I very much enjoyed reading through it. While I didn’t mention it in my column, I wonder if Kaplan’s premise of “directed attention” formed something of the basis of Mindfulness Theory. Thank you for the information!

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