Nature Calms the Brain and Heals the Body

April 20, 2016

For the most part, our brains didn’t evolve in cities. But in a few decades, almost 70 percent of the world’s people will live in urban environments. Despite the prosperity we associate with cities, urbanization presents a major health challenge. Cities, with their accelerated pace of life, can be stressful. The results are seen in the brains and behavior of those raised in cities or currently living in one.

On the upside, city dwellers are on average wealthier and receive better health care, nutrition, and sanitation than rural residents. On the downside, they experience an increased risk of chronic disease, a more demanding and stressful social environment and greater levels of inequity. In fact, city dwellers have a 21 percent greater risk for anxiety disorders and a 39 percent increased likelihood of mood disorders.

A study published in Nature links city living with sensitivity to social stress. MRI scans show greater exposure to urban environments can increase activity in the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotions such as fear and the release of stress-related hormones. According to the study, the amygdala “has been strongly implicated in anxiety disorders, depression, and other behaviors that are increased in cities, such as violence.”

The researchers also found people who lived in cities for their first 15 years experienced increased activity in an area of the brain that helps regulate the amygdala. So if you grew up in the city, you’re more likely than those who moved there later in life to have permanently raised sensitivity to stress.

Author and Professor David Gessner says we’re turning into “fast twitch” animals. It’s like we have an alarm clock going off in our brains every 30 seconds, sapping our ability to concentrate for longer periods of time. The demands of urban life include a constant need to filter information, dodge distractions, and make decisions. We give our brains little time to recover.

How do we slow things down? Nature seems to be the answer. Cognitive psychologist David Strayer’s hypothesis is that “being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center, to dial down and rest, like an overused muscle.”

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