The Brain Outdoors


After a day in the mountains, I feel rejuvenated and recentered.  I have often wondered why this happens. The fresh air, the physical activity, time spent adventuring outdoors is invigorating to the soul... but I’ve always been curious if my restored sensation after a day well spent in the mountains is scientifically founded. And, yes, indeed research does back it well!

Research shows there are high mental benefits with being outside, which has felt congruent to my experience: spending time outdoors is associated with positive changes in stress hormones, heart rate and waves lengths. In fact, even increased green spaces, such as a few trees in the a neighborhood, are associated with positive biological and mental changes.

In a fascinating National Geographic article, David Strayer compares three days of being in the wilderness to mental cleaning: “The three-day effect, he says, is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough…. On the third day my senses recalibrate—I smell things and hear things I didn’t before.”

Have you experienced your senses being re-calibrated in nature?

Soaking up the sights and sounds of nature lends one to think of nothing in particular - it is natural to just be and watch the waves, look at the mountains, gaze at the landscape just because. It is a form of mindfulness, of surrender, of letting go, and embracing the moment in the natural season it is in. When I am in the outdoors, I’m consumed by a reality different than the environment of my daily routine. It is almost as if I’m in a different world. Nature encourages open spaces to captivate my mind at the expense of letting go of other concerns or unnecessary thoughts in my mind. I am directed to let go of anything other than the beauty and wonder before me.

What happens to your mind and thoughts when in nature?

As previously mentioned, even aspects of nature in city environments lend to positive mental health benefits. The article provides extensive research explaining the brain science behind experiences in nature - even a city walk or the size of a window in an office building that looks toward a park of cluster of trees affects one’s well being. This is because the prefrontal cortex is calmed down. Korean researchers concluded from MRI studies that even viewing nature scenes versus urban scenes “showed more blood flow in the amygdala, which processes fear and anxiety. In contrast, the natural scenes lit up the anterior cingulate and the insula—areas associated with empathy and altruism. Maybe nature makes us nicer as well as calmer.”

Essentially, this study explains that nature lights up areas of our brain that foster connection with humanity, instead of fear and anxiety. Have you experienced positive effects of nature in the midst of city living? Is there a park or scenic outlook near your home or work where you find it helpful to recenter?

Further research complements the findings above, stating that there is a unique emotional connectedness humanity experiences in nature that is distinct from other forms of psychological connectedness. In other words, the psychological connection to nature is unique, and nature offers psychological benefits that other life giving aspects of life may not provide. The distinct areas in the brain that nature triggers and the sense of mindfulness the outdoors naturally cultivate evidence just a fews reasons why a walk in an urban park or a hike to mountains might be an activity worth prioritizing in this busy holiday season.

Have you noticed a positive effect on your mood from being outdoors? What are your favorite ways to get in nature?


Victoria Barrett is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor passionate about coming alongside you in your journey toward a life of greater healing, joy and abundance. Victoria uses various expressive and creative therapies to aid her clients in healing from trauma, adjustment disorders, attachment issues, anxiety, depression, and more.

Victoria also loves adventure in the great outdoors, in cooking, in traveling and in discovering good live music.  Click here to learn more about working with Victoria.

Victoria Barrett, MA, LMHC