Why Nature Is Great For The Brain + How To Reap Its Mental Benefits, From A Neuroscientist
It's not hard to convince most people that spending time in nature is good for them. Stepping outside after a long day and feeling your shoulders drop, your mind relax, and your breath steady is proof enough.
But just in case you need some extra persuading, there's now scientific reason to believe that nature exposure has a significant impact on blood pressure, cortisol levels, and more. And on a recent episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, neuroscientist and author of Biohack Your Brain Kristen Willeumier, Ph.D., shared yet another reason to embrace Mama Earth: Her frequency might support brain health.
Tuning in to the Earth's frequency.
Beyond giving us space to move, helping us produce vitamin D, and serving as a respite from emails and devices, Willeumier says that nature is healing because of its unique charge.
"The Earth has its own frequency, called a Schumann Resonance, which is about 7.8 Hertz," she said on the podcast.
NASA refers to this frequency, discovered by its namesake physicist Winfried Otto Schumann in the 1950s, as the planet's "atmospheric heartbeat." Caused by the electric currents of lightning interacting with the Earth's atmosphere, there's some early evidence to show that the Schumann Resonance is soothing to the human body.
Proponents of "earthing"—the practice of standing barefoot outside—claim that connecting to this frequency can do everything from ease pain and inflammation1 to lessen cardiovascular risks.
The mainstream medical field isn't convinced just yet: "Most research is done within the alternative medical world and is not regularly discussed among traditional doctors," Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., previously told mbg. "The consensus is that it's not curative but can be recommended within an integrative plan for mostly preventive but also therapeutic health management."
From a neurological perspective, Willeumier thinks it shows promise for relaxing the fatigued mind. "[Schumann Resonance] puts us into the theta brainwave state," she said. By helping the body ease into this relaxed state, which we also enter when we dream, she believes that nature and its charge can support brain health throughout life.
While not necessarily a medicine on its own, she said that time outdoors should be part of everyone's brain health regimen. When combined with other mentally healthy habits like hydration and a well-rounded diet, it can help keep our minds sharp as we age.
A neuroscientist's favorite ways to get outside.
As for what kind of nature is best for the aging brain, Willeumier said, "It's all created equal." Landscape preference is largely personal, so seeking out whatever environment you have access to—be it a sandy beach, a cactus-clad desert, or a lush forest—will be beneficial.
No matter what landscape lies outside your door, here are some neuroscientist-approved ideas for how to restore yourself in it, body and mind:
- Go on a walk or run: Moving your body outdoors will combine nature's innately relaxing feel with the brain-boosting benefits of movement. "The easiest way to protect our brain long term is to get daily exercise," Willeumier said. She added that staying socially connected is also beneficial for the mind, so bonus points if you bring a friend along.
- Bathe among the trees: Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) is now the subject of some pretty fascinating clinical research. The Japanese practice of moving slowly and mindfully through a forest environment, paying attention to all five senses as you go, has been associated with increased parasympathetic nervous system activity, reduced self-reported stress, and even heightened immunity.
- Grab your floaties: "The water can be very calming to the brain," Willeumier said. For example, when working with NFL players to help boost their mental fitness, kickboarding was one exercise she always liked to include.
- Read outdoors: Willeumier believes that simply sitting still in nature can be beneficial as well—especially when paired with another brain-strengthening activity like reading a book. "The No. 1 thing I think people need to do more of is long-form reading; 15 to 30 minutes of picking up any kind of a book," she said.
- Get your hands dirty: Horticulture therapy is another promising field of study in the neuroscience realm, and there's research to show that gardening and tending to plants can boost cognitive function2, especially in older individuals.
The bottom line.
Moving your body (or just reading a book) outdoors is one enjoyable activity that's totally free, accessible to almost everyone, and—according to this neuroscientist—invaluable for brain health.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.