"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better."
Our plan to take a day trip to the mountains yesterday changed due to various circumstances. I was still able to go on a nice walk outside, and it gave me time to finalize audio edits for my podcast. But as the week of computer-heavy tasks begins again, it continues to re-affirm for me the importance of finding more ways to be outdoors more often as a lifestyle. This is an important topic because it relates to mental health and physical wellbeing, and science is also supporting this:
Time outdoors can increase brain matter in areas related to improved mental health
The findings from various studies provide neuroscientific support for ‘prescribing’ going outdoors as a treatment of mental disorders.
For example, brains scans show that time spent outdoors is positively related to gray matter in the right prefrontal cortex (Max Planck Institute for Human Development). This part of the frontal lobe is involved in planning and regulation of actions - otherwise known as cognitive control. Many psychiatric conditions are associated with a reduction in gray matter in the prefrontal area. Cognitive control can play a highly significant role in improving thought processes and healing from post-traumatic stress.
*In this video about the suicide prevention from a non-profit organization called Military Special Operations Family Collaborative - Erick Miyares highlights the role of family units in helping veterans on their journey to recovery, as well as the role of cognitive processes.
Outdoor experiences improve learning
Other studies also point to students feeling significant improvements in their motivation to learn and competence by teaching outdoors and taking small research expeditions as examples of learning.
According to self-determination theory*, three basic psychological pillars are needed to motivate learning:
- Relatedness (or connection)
All three of these have been shown to increase when students are given time outdoors as part of their learning experience.
(see this study on the benefit of outdoor learning)
*self-determination is a topic I love and will cover in future content as well
Time outdoors can improve cortisol rhythms
A study published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, looked at levels of the stress hormone cortisol in two groups of children. They were interested in the pattern of cortisol levels across a regular day. In a normal, healthy person, cortisol levels spike upon waking up in the morning, drop until about midday, plateau through the afternoon, and then drop again until bedtime. This study showed differences in the students who spent even just one day each week learning in a nearby forest and the rest of their time in school as usual, compared with a group that studied indoors only. The outdoor group showed a normal, healthy pattern in their cortisol levels, but the children who stayed indoors did not show the expected drop in cortisol in the afternoon, and continued to show the higher stress hormone level during the whole day.
As someone who has worked with youth and mental health, I believe that giving young people more chances to be and learn and connect in a variety of outdoor environments could help improve mental health, cognitive control - which is related to social-emotional control and competence. The more of us who can find ways to bring more adventures, exploration, wilderness and outdoor time into our lives, the more models the next generation will have for the sake of their own brain development. Most of my childhood was spent outdoors because we didn’t have a dependence on technology. I also have had the most profound transformative experiences working with young people in settings where we traveled, learned, connected and helped others. Virtually all of those settings were outdoors.
There are a lot of organizations that encourage learning environments that bring together people in community and with a passion for exploration and adventure - I love this video about a recent event from Fieldcraft Survival celebrating ‘overlanding’, - a term I only learned about last year, and is a fun topic that brings a lot of this together. Selfishly, much of all this learning plays into my vision of a lifestyle that's off the beaten path and filled with human connection, family, partnership, new landscapes, exploration, and pioneering new ways of living and learning that benefit humans on multiple levels.
With Love from Me to You
“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.
We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
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