Here’s What Happens to Your Brain After You’ve Been Living in the Wilderness for Three Days

“There is something about being outside that takes us out of our own heads and makes us feel part of a larger world.”

Florence Williams is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer for the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and more. She recently sat down with Heleo’s Mandy Godwin to discuss her latest book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

Mandy: The Nature Fix focuses on what nature does to our physiology and how it affects how we feel, in scientific terms. What did you find out?

Florence: I wasn’t that surprised that it makes us feel happier, or that it calms us down or even makes us feel more creative. Those were all things that anecdotally and personally I’ve noticed from hanging out on the trails or going for walks. I was more blown away by the science showing that noticing beauty and awe can slow down our perception of time and make us feel like we’re part of a larger community, solidify our relationships and our connections to each other.

They’ll have subjects look up at a stand of tall trees for one minute, and then another group look up at a tall building for one minute. Then, a research technician will “accidentally” drop a box of pens in front of each subject and record how many pens they helped pick up. The subjects who were looking at the trees pick up more pens: they’re more helpful and they behave more altruistically.

Mandy: This sense of unity with your group, [does] it go back to our instinct for being in a small band of people? And does that get heightened when we’re outside?

Florence: It does seem to. Part of it is that we are social animals and we’re designed to process information in a group. We end up so often these days in our own cubicles and email accounts, and that seems to make us more self-involved, self-referential, and narcissistic.

Mandy: My first thought, if I were thinking about how nature is good for us, would not necessarily immediately tie into something social. Usually when you think about cities, you’re like “Well, the city is where we’re really social—there’s tons of people there—and nature’s where we go to be alone.”

Florence: Everyone I see walking through the city has their earphones on. They have their own personal soundscape, they’re on the phone, they’re listening to a podcast, or they’re in their vehicle. If you think about it, being in nature is the ultimate shared experience. There are still tremendous benefits from being alone in nature—there’s a long history of civilization placing a lot of emphasis on the spiritual journey of being alone in the wilderness—but there is something about being outside that takes us out of our own heads, whether we’re alone or not, and makes us feel part of a larger world. That’s one of the reasons it’s so effective in helping people deal with depression.

There are some brain scan studies showing that the parts of our brains involved in ruminative depressive thinking deactivate after a 90 minute walk in nature. That does not happen after a 90 minute walk in the city. It doesn’t seem to take people out of their feedback loop of personal crises.

“There is something about being outside that takes us out of our own heads and makes us feel part of a larger world.”

Mandy: You talk about, too, the different kinds of processing that happen when you’re outside, away from the city.

Florence: That’s right. Because your brain is processing information on a level of all five senses, that seems to activate your deeper, older brain, which is your sensory brain, and in turn rests our prefrontal cortex, our executive thinking, our to-do list brain. We become more open to perceptual information, which in turn is really relaxing.

In Japan where this idea of “forest bathing” is really taking off, what researchers have found is that by fully engaging all five of our senses, it’s a shortcut to feeling the relaxing and restorative effects of nature. It seems to facilitate a state of mindfulness, and even after just 15 or 20 minutes of really paying attention to all of your senses, it seems to be very soothing and helpful for our nervous systems.

Mandy: And we don’t use all five of our senses when we’re sitting in cubicles?

Florence: We really never do. We shut down a lot of our bodies. In fact, we work really hard to block out our senses when we’re sitting at our desk. If there’s noise in the cubicle next to us, we’re working really hard to block that out, which is exhausting. A lot of it is subconscious: our brains are overtaxed, but we don’t really know it. It manifests itself in our being tired and a little grumpy, short-tempered.

Mandy: What was your most transformative experience when you were doing the research for this?

Florence: A deep dive into the wilderness. I spent six days on a river trip in Idaho with a group of women veterans, all suffering from PTSD. I learned from another neuroscientist about the so-called three day effect: interesting things start happening to your brain after a deeper immersion into wilderness after three days. That is when you start becoming much more awake to your environment. You start noticing things you hadn’t noticed before. You start thinking on a different level about your place in the world, who you are, and what your priorities are. You also start having a much more sensory, full-bodied kind of experience, which is really how our bodies evolved. It just feels good. You feel alive.

It was very powerful for me to watch these other women transform into lighter-hearted, more engaged people who were sleeping better, laughing more easily, feeling more self-confidence, opening themselves up to environmental and natural stimuli. In PTSD, the opposite happens. You close yourself off from the world. Being in nature has this kind of anti-PTSD effect. It was powerful and amazing to watch that happen, to see these women come out of their shells.

“Interesting things start happening to your brain after a deeper immersion into wilderness after three days.”

Mandy: What are the things that people can do if they can’t spend three full days [outside]?

Florence: I got better at learning how to access nature in the city, because most of us do live in cities. It’s little things. [Be] mindful of engaging all your senses. Now, when I go for a walk in a city park, I take my earbuds out and will look for the birds and try to notice if there are fish jumping in the creek. Sometimes I’ll grab a few pine needles and crush them up and smell them. I try to notice more of the textures and the patterns around me. It’s that shortcut into getting out of my head and feeling more present.

As more evidence emerges that time outside is a necessity in terms of helping people deal with chronic stress, I do think that there’s a growing movement to get kids outside and to get stressed populations greater access to quality environments. I think that more pediatricians, for example, are talking to students about where they spend time—unplugging more, spending time in parks. There are some great programs, for example, in Oakland and D.C., connecting families to their local parks and encouraging them to go outside.

There’s a recognition that the medical community hasn’t been very good at dealing with chronic stress, either in young people or in older people, and that chronic stress is related to a whole host of other problems later on. So if there’s anything you can do to help short circuit it, it’s worth trying.

Mandy: What was the reason it took academia and hard science a long time to catch up with this knowledge that being outside and connected to nature is beneficial to us?

Florence: Well, I think they’re still catching up.

There’s still a lot of skepticism in the medical community. It’s very hard to do large scale case control studies, to isolate either the factors or elements of nature. There are a lot of potential confounding factors: is it just that you’re in fresh air and away from air pollution and noise pollution and office pollutants, or is it that you tend to be with people and there are positive social effects? Or is it that you’re getting exercise? It’s been challenging to tease it apart.

But I think there is a lot of evidence coming in now on many levels, from the cellular level to the individual level to population-level studies. There are some really suggestive population-level studies showing that people who live closer to green cities suffer from fewer cardiovascular diseases, stress-related diseases, and that’s after controlling for socioeconomic factors. It’s not just that people who have more money tend to live on golf courses. In fact, it’s people who are the most stressed out who tend to be the most helped.

“The science shows even 20 or 30 minutes outside is good for us.”

Mandy: [Do] virtual reality and images of green spaces and beautiful vistas really work or help?

Florence: The studies show that that actually does. You’re seeing, for example, in doctors’ offices and hospitals, more biophilic design elements: more nature photography, bigger windows, more natural light. There’s a whole host of window studies suggesting that schools that have grassier grounds, the test results are higher. Even if it’s the same school. If it’s a school that has barren grass one year and then they re-sodded the next year, the test scores are higher.

In housing projects, one side of the building will face a grassy courtyard and the other side will face another building. On some behavioral measures, like aggression or a sense of self-efficacy, the grassier side of the building appears to be better off. Then there are also studies looking at symptoms of ADHD being reduced after time outside.

We’re not talking big nature immersions here. We’re talking window views, photographs. There’s a really interesting study in a prison in eastern Oregon, with solitary confinement prisoners. Some of them are assigned to work out in a room showing nature videos and others are assigned to work out in just a plain room. After a year of studying behavior in these two groups of people, the incidence of violent outbursts are lower in the prisoners who are working out with the nature videos. They’re calmer. Now, a lot of the inmates, if they’re feeling upset about something, request extra time in the room with those videos. The guards want to have nature videos in their lounge rooms because they’re stressed out.

Mandy: This is a great marketing study for Planet Earth. It makes me want to go watch some documentaries.

How has doing this research changed your approach to being outside?

Florence: I definitely make a big effort to get out every day because I know I need it. Sometimes I just have 30 minutes. But the science shows even 20 or 30 minutes outside is good for us: the vitamin D, the sunlight, the extra lumens, the color green are good for us. And I know I feel better if I do it. I also have kids, so I make a big effort to get them out and send them off to summer camp. It’s more important than ever because we are more disconnected than ever before from nature, and we’re spending more and more time plugged in. Intuitively, we sense that it doesn’t make us feel so great.

I hope that people pay a little more attention to how they feel when they’re outside, because we know that people have a tendency to undervalue the benefits of being in nature. They think other things will make them feel better, like shopping or streaming Netflix, and they don’t. I just don’t think everyone is paying attention.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.