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This Earth Month: Find Out What Nature Does To Your Brain

April 16, 2016


This Earth Month, discover what Nature does to your brain! And to your heart! Not to mention your hair! And yes I’m talking more than being outside at Coachella!

“When we get closer to nature—be it untouched wilderness or a backyard tree—we do our overstressed brains a favor,” states National Geographic Magazine in a story by Florence Williams with photographs by Lucas Foglia. Williams quotes environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan:

“Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost,” the researchers wrote in their paper. It exists, they continued, and it’s called “interacting with nature.”

UnknownThank goodness that the US government  100 years ago established the National Park Service to provide us with special places to go to be in nature! (Read on to see a list of films celebrating our national parks that will be shown at Ventura College next week).

But research shows that just talking a walk in the woods or even a neighborhood park for as little as 15 minutes makes a difference to your brain and other measurable stress indicators!

In the article, author Williams introduces readers to David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah who takes his psych students into the wilderness as well as Outward Bound participants –and tests them. Yes, he actually hauls an EEG monitor out there among other tests.

Strayer found it takes three days in nature for our brains to recalibrate, what Dr Kenneth Norris taught me to describe as being on “mountain time” during Field Quarter when I was an undergraduate Environmental Studies major at UC Santa Cruz:

“When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too,” writes Williams. “Strayer has demonstrated as much with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking.”

Strayer says that time in nature lets the brain’s “command center” be at ease– and he has EEG tests to prove it comparing people in nature with an office with a parking lot.

Why does time in Nature make us feel better, heal faster, be more creative? Time In Nature Lowers Stress as measured by heart beats, stress hormones, and other factors.

“Motivated by large-scale public health problems such as obesity, depression, and pervasive nearsightedness, all clearly associated with time spent indoors, Strayer and other scientists are looking with renewed interest at how nature affects our brains and bodies,” writes Williams. “Building on advances in neuroscience and psychology, they’ve begun to quantify what once seemed divine and mysterious. These measurements—of everything from stress hormones to heart rate to brain waves to protein markers—indicate that when we spend time in green space, “there is something profound going on,” as Strayer puts it.”

In another study led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University in Japan, a simple stroll in the woods changed physiology: 84 subjects walked for 15 minutes in seven different forests, while another 84 walked in city centers. Those in the forest saw a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate!

Surprisingly, in Korea, the benefits of nature for people’s mental and physical health is seen as more valuable than that of timber.  Social scientist Shin Won Sop studied the effects of forest therapy on alcoholics. His research shows that time in nature reduces medical coast. In Korea, human health as well as timber health is part of the forest management plan.

“Of course we still use forests for timber,” Shin says. “But I think the health area is the fruit of the forest right now.”

Stanford researcher Greg Bratman studied the brains of 38 volunteers before and after a walk on  busy street in Palo Alto and a walk in nature in a park. His results show that Nature influences “how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions” (in Williams).

Being in nature, according to research by environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan, provides us with soothing visual elements so that our brains our brains “wander, rest, and recover from what Olmsted called the “nervous irritation” of city life. “Soft fascination … permits a more reflective mode,” wrote the Kaplans (in Williams). So go read the article!


Screen Time vs Green Time

“Visits to parks are down. So are visits to the backyard. One survey found only 10 percent of American teens spend time outside every day,” notes Williams in the article “This is Your Brain on Nature.”

Earlier this month I challenged myself, my students, my friends, and my readers to:

–cut back on screen time
–cut back on single use plastic
–spend an hour or more a day (7 hours a week) in nature

We all agreed that it was harder than we thought! Why did I set us on this challenge? I’ve written a lot about the problems with single use plastic over the years (for example read here or link below) and this semester my students and I read Gyre: The Plastic Ocean, as well as study the importance of nature by reading selections from Richard Louv’s book about Nature Deficit Disorder, Last Child in the Woods.

Psychology Today reports that “Screentime is Making Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy” and that kids are both “wired and tired.” Kids get diagnosed depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD, and prescribed medication, but that doesn’t solve the problem. In this article, author Dr Victoria L. Dunckley M.D. suggests an “electronics fast”—to allow the nervous system to “reset” which can lead to better sleep,  mood, and focus plus increased physical activity:

“The child begins to enjoy the things they used to, is more drawn to nature, and imaginary or creative play returns. In teens and young adults, an increase in self-directed behavior is observed—the exact opposite of apathy and hopelessness,” writes Dr. Dunckley.  “The electronic fast reduces or eliminates the need for medication while rendering other treatments more effective.”

Why does reducing screen time work so well? Among other reasons, the author of  Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time says that “Screen-time reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.” Research shows that time outdoors, especially interacting with nature, can restore attention, lower stress, and reduce aggression.” As noted above!

With this being Earth Month, there are plenty of opportunities to get out and get GREEN! Below are some local to Ventura County opportunities:



“One World. One Climate” is the theme for the largest Earth Day celebration on the West Coast!

The Community Environmental Council (CEC) host its annual Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival at Alameda Park on Saturday, April 16 (11 a.m.-7 p.m.) and Sunday, April 17 (11 a.m.-6 p.m.). The 2016 theme-ONE WORLD-encourages individuals, communities, and nations to come together to protect the ONE CLIMATE we all share, and urges each of us to commit to taking ONE STEP at a time to green our lives. The longest-running and most consistently held public Earth Day celebration in the country, crowds of 30,000 or more gather each year for the fun.

At the Festival, you can:

  • -Get FREE bike valet and complimentary bike tune ups
  • -Talk to public officials about how you can support green legislation
  • -Purchase green products and sustainably sourced foods
  • -Learn about alternative fuel cars
  • -Connect with local farmers, food artisans, and sustainable food vendors

After the Festival, you will know why you should:

  • -Drive less
  • -Vote green
  • -Ditch plastic
  • -Eat local
  • -Go solar
  • -Choose electric or other clean-fuel vehicles

The Santa Barbara Fermentation Festival will be popping up at Santa Barbara Earth Day on April 16 and 17! Stop by the Homegrown Roots Zone to check out the various fermentation activities, booths, talks and demos.

Also in Santa Barbara April 17 from 3-4pm, “Poetry & Natural History” with David Starkey & Friends at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2559 Puesta del Sol. Join Museum Poet-in-Residence David Starkey (Santa Barbara Poet Laureate Emeritus) and other poets for a nature poetry reading in the Maximus Gallery exhibit, The Whole Flock. Free admission on Sunday, April 17.


Also in Santa Barbara from 3-6pm is “Magic on the Urban Wine Trail.” Read more about it on Wine Predator.

UnknownNext week, Ventura College, where I teach, will host the VC Geosciences 7th Annual Film Festival during EARTH WEEK April 18 – 21, 2016. Organized and curated by Professor Pattie Ridenour, the theme is “Celebrating 100 years of the national park service.”

 Monday, April 18, 3:30pm, SCI-313

National Park Service History, Part I –Then & Now –
From Inception to Formation with two  Short Films:

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Glacier Bay National Park, AK

Tuesday, April 19, 3:30pm, SCI-313

National Park Service History, Part II – Then & Now –
Poachers, Vandals, Thieves & Hooligans with two Short Films:

Yosemite National Park, CA
Arches National Park, UT

Wednesday, April 20, 3:30pm, SCI-313

National Park Service History, Part III – Then & Now –
Trash Talk with two Short Films:

Yellowstone National Park, WY
Glacier National Park, MT

Thursday, April 21, 3:30pm, SCI-313

National Park Service History, Part IV – Then & Now –
Going up in Flames with two Short Films:

Acadia National Park, ME
Everglades National Park, FL


Statewide, you’ll find various trail projects and beach cleanups with many occurring Sat. April 16. In Ventura, the City is organizing a beach cleanup at Marina Park April 23. (For those who look far ahead, save the date for: The 32nd Annual California Coastal Cleanup Day is Saturday, September 17th, 2016!)

Ventura’s Earth Day is next Saturday along the Beach Promenade near the Ventura County Fairgrounds.  While significantly smaller than the Santa Barbara event, it offers plenty to Ventura County locals and raises funds for the Ventura Charter School. Two stages offer entertainment plus activities include:

  • Kids Educational Exhibits – Pet lizards and tortoises, learn about birds of prey, watch and participate in live science experiments, understand how solar energy systems work, and more.
  • Recycled Crafts Center – Create beautiful art out of “found” objects, hosted by local WAV artists (Working Artists Ventura).
  • Scavenger Hunt – Learn facts about protecting the earth and earn a free ice cream coupon for McConnell’s Ice Cream!
  • Kids Fun – Ventura Earth Day Eco Fest has a number of fun activities for children, face painting, hula hooping, arts/crafts and more.
  • Silent auction and raffle– Original artwork, custom surfboards, green merchandise, Channel Island trips and more.


Get out! Get going! Get green! Get nature! Get better!

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