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Nature could be just the tonic

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Nature could offer the just the tonic you need

If only you could get nature on prescription...

Well that's exactly what used to happen in the mid-19th century, as smokey, dirty Britain had well and truly entered the Industrial Revolution and urban areas became unbearable. Physicians would often prescribe a visit to a sanitorium and for the wealthy a trip to the Swiss Alps was seen as the cure for many ills.

Now, although our towns and cities are much cleaner and calmer, research is showing that not only can nature make us happier, but it can also boost creativity, brain function, and physical health.

Nature can boost happiness

Until recently, we mostly just had anecdotal evidence to suggest that nature is good for us. Now, with neuroscience, brain scans indicate that nature doesn’t just alter the way we feel subjectively, but it also impacts our brain. At Stanford University they investigated the changes in the brain that occur when people walk in nature.

Brain scans were performed on 38 individuals to obtain a baseline. Participants were asked to answer a questionnaire designed to measure their tendency toward rumination, a pattern of negative thinking.  Then, half of the study participants were directed to walk for 90 minutes through a natural California setting, and the other half were instructed to walk along a busy road.  

After the walk, the scan was repeated and the subjects were asked to fill out the questionnaire again. The results showed that people who had walked in nature ruminated less than the urban walkers and showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness.  

Nature can boost creativity

We’ve all suffered from creative blocks - even just writing a note to the milkman! Fortunately, science indicates that nature can help. Psychologists from the University of Utah and University of Kansas decided to measure nature’s impact on creativity.

Participants in studies were asked to perform a series of creative tests. They were then sent out on a camping expedition in the great outdoors.

On day four of their nature break they re-took the tests. The results were astounding. Researchers found that with just four days of immersion in nature, performance on the test improved by 50%!

Nature can improve brain function

Good news – you might not even have to move away from your desk to enjoy the mind-enhancing benefits of nature.

In a study published by the journal Environmental Psychology, participants were given a tedious computer task to do, called the Sustained Attention Response Task (SART).  Researchers found that when the task was interrupted with 40-second breaks to view an image of grass and flowers, brain function improved. As Albert Einstein said, “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”

Nature can help combat stress

The stress hormone cortisol is linked with lower immune function, increased weight gain, heart disease and higher blood pressure and cholesterol.  

Time in nature, however, seems to reduce cortisol.  In a Dutch study, participants were given a stressful activity to perform.  After completing it, they were separated into two groups.  One group was instructed to read indoors, and the other was told to garden outdoors.  Not only were the gardeners in a better mood once their task was complete, but they also had lower levels of cortisol.