New research has proven what perhaps many Vancouverites already know: time spent in nature is therapeutic for mental health. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has shown that a mere 90 minutes on a hiking trail (or even just setting up camp in wild surroundings) decreases activity in the regions of the brain associated with depression.
The researchers sought to better understand links between environment and mood. Approximately half the world’s population now lives in urban settings, and city dwellers are 20-40 per cent more likely than rural dweller to develop mood or anxiety disorders.
For the study, researchers measured two groups of participants; one group walked for 90 minutes in grassland, while the other walked along a 4-way highway. Before and after, the researchers measured heart and respiration rates, and neural activity using MRI scanning. The results showed little differences physically between the two groups, but found that activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (the brain region where negative emotions dwell) diminished in those who had walked in nature.
“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” said Gretchen Daily, an author of the study and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Another author, James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford, added, “These findings are important because they are consistent with, but do not yet prove, a causal link between increasing urbanization and increased rates of mental illness.”