Seems like my parents’ advice urging me to peel myself off the couch and go for a bike ride in the park with my friends was less annoying and far better for my health than I thought.
This study featured research from Dr. Tatia Lee, Chris Webster, Dorita Change, and Dr. Bin Jiang conducted at The University of Hong Kong. The correlation between living near green spaces and better mental health is undeniable.
The scientists took a sample size of 44 adults to see exactly which areas of the brain benefited the most after being exposed to “greener pastures” as it were. You can find the full study here.
The case study
Researchers utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brain of the 44 participants after they were shown images of areas with varying degrees of green space while completing a stressful task.
Each person was shown 3 different photos from rural and urban streets in the United States. Obviously, the rural areas were densely occupied by nature’s bounty — trees, bushes, meadows, and different bodies of water. The urban areas were mostly sidewalks, buildings, and traffic lights. Once they were shown these green spaces versus urban spaces scientists took a scan of their brains to see which areas showed increased activity depending on the scenery.
After 2 weeks participants were asked to come back to report their preference for each image and to report their stress level attempting to complete a stressful task with the 3 different backdrops. The results found participants reported lower levels of stress while completing a task with greener visual aids. The fMRI also showed increased activity in the posterior cingulate region of the brain.
One co-author of the study adds, “It turns out environments (in our case, urban landscapes) with varying degrees of green-cover, activate a primitive part of the brain – the posterior cingulate. This region is particularly intriguing as it is a part of a larger (limbic) system that is known for its role in serving motivation- and emotion-related responses, but also has extensive connections to executive (e.g., decision-making) and attentional nodes in the brain.”
The posterior cingulate communicates with our regulatory response to stress in the neuroendocrine system. Now that we know green spaces activate this part of the brain we can go forth and use this information to better plan accessible green spaces in densely populated cities, rethink our office layouts, and even come up with groundbreaking virtual reality therapy to introduce those unable to take a walk outside like prisoners, disabled folks, people hospitalized for long periods of time, and of course those sheltering in place due to COVID-19.
What does that mean for human beings and the utilization of green space in the future?
This research, while exciting, is only the tip of the iceberg. Prior studies have revealed the life-changing benefits enjoyed by living near wide open spaces but what is it about them that makes us feel so much better?
One co-author pondered the root of the benefits of green space in the following press release.
“One good question moving forward is whether, beyond greenness, deviations of such properties may also lead to variances in stress-responses. It is easy to imagine how much work would have important implications for city/architectural-planning. Future research could examine what particular features of natural environments are associated with mental health benefits.”
Scientists compared this dilemma of not knowing exactly what it was about the green space that elicits this positive response to the “Mozart effect.” The aforementioned co-author ruminates further in the following brief.
“We suspect that there is a relationship between the structure of green spaces and brain/mood/health responses, just as there may be in music. ‘Mozart effect’ experiments initially proposed that the complexity of Mozart was the reason for (temporarily) enhanced cognitive effects in young adults in solving spatial puzzles. The result has recently been generalized to ‘whatever music you have a preference for.’”
Is it Mozart specifically that improves cognitive function or is it music in general that boosts our brainpower? This is why scientists want to study this particular phenomenon in green spaces and how they relate to our physiological well-being.
Another co-author adds, “The current understanding is that music stimulates the brain for clearer 3D and other complex forms of problem-solving. So: is it the structure of the green (shapes of trees, variegation of texture and shade) or the prior-preference that induces the cognitive (and stress-moderating) effects?”
It may be worth your time and money to move to an area rich with nature conservatories, mountain trails, and botanical gardens close by. If moving is out of reach there are benefits to stuffing your living space with houseplants and taking the scenic route when you go out for essential items. If you want to beat the winter blues watching a nature documentary boasts the same mutually beneficial effects.