The forest behind the school has been our refuge for exploration, discovery, and adventure.
I have always been intuitively drawn to nature and the outdoors. What is amazing is how scientific research now shows evidence for nature’s ability to improve the cognitive functioning of our brain. Our brain’s neuroplasticity is affected by its environment, and spending time in nature actually changes the brain in profound ways. It makes us healthier, happier, and smarter. Stress hormones, heart rate, brain waves, and protein markers show evidence of this impact… allow me to elaborate.
What you see, hear, smell, feel, and experience at any moment changes your mood, and how your nervous, endocrine and immune systems interact. While the stress of an unpleasant environment causes you to feel anxious, sad, helpless, it also elevates blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension and suppresses your immune system. After minutes in a crowded, noisy city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, suffering from reduced ability to self-control.
Natural environments reverse this effect and enhance our overall well-being.
Nature helps us cope with pain, stress, hurt, allowing our bodies to heal faster. Evidence shows that hospital patients’ recovery rates exponentially increase when they can see trees from their windows.
Nature is restorative. Nature is a neurological process that calms our brain and the prefrontal cortex. Psychologists call it Attention Restoration Theory, or ART, the theory that nature gives back what man-made environments take away from us. Urban environments force us to direct our attention to specific tasks which are absent in natural environments. Nature is not a panacea, but an inexpensive and effective tool for dampening the impact of illness and dulling the intrusion of everyday stress. This effect can be as fast as 60 seconds. Nature provides a respite for our overactive minds, refreshing us for new tasks and increasing our ability to pay attention, feel more energetic and creative. Functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) measurements show the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love light up after being in nature, evidence of an increased sense of connection, community, belonging, trust and coping skills.
In the forest we breathe in phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumors – and virus-infected cells – in our bodies. In one study, increased NK activity from a 3-day, 2-night forest bathing trip lasted for more than 30 days. Japanese researchers are currently exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer.
Two areas of the brain, the cingulate cortex and amygdala, involved in regulation of emotions and anxiety are deeply affected by the environment. In the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, the limbic stress regulation system expresses high cortisol which modulates hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation during stress, leading to chronic social stress.
Nature is the antidote.
Simply being in nature can have a healing effect by reducing cortisol levels and washing our brains with increased oxytocin. EEG (electroencephalogram) readings indicate lower frustration, engagement, and arousal. This level of brain activity is strongly linked to creative thinking. Nature provides the comfort our brains need, resetting our thoughts and producing a peaceful mindset. Where we live can therefore powerfully alter how we think… and how our children think.
Before our forest shrinks amidst the growing concrete jungle, let’s take full advantage as we trek on a path to becoming healthier, happier, and smarter with our students.