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Forest bathing #4 Smarter through forest bathing? How does our brain benefit from nature?

Richard Staudner
Richard Staudner

The Optimizer

As described in previous articles, forest bathing or forest therapy is a mindful engagement with the natural environment of the forest. Originating in Japan, the traditional practice can take place guided or alone and is said to help with stress and depression.

In this post on forest bathing, we are interested in a different topic. This time we want to look at whether time in the forest can increase cognitive performance. There are two different approaches here, both of which we want to shed light on. On the one hand, we are interested in how forest bathing in itself can enhance our cognition and attention. On the other hand, there has been a lot of research on how natural environments affect academic performance while living and learning.

The forest and our mind

It is relatively quickly apparent from a review of the currently available study material that forest bathing is also supportive of our cognitive performance. Time spent in the forest can, according to various studies, improve our cognitive performance, our working memory (responsible for processing absorbed stimuli) and the ability to adapt behavior flexibly. Creativity can also be enhanced through forest bathing.

Children with access to natural environments or green schools achieve better academic performance in the studies and show better intellectual development and mental performance. In addition, students in schools with green spaces felt better rested.

Nature also has an effect on older people: studies have shown that contact with natural environments reduces the risk of dementia in older adults. Another study makes it clear that it is essential to have contact with nature: Park walks increased cognitive performance in seniors, and regular gardening reduced dementia risk. However, green spaces around nursing homes alone do not seem to have an effect on cognitive performance. This is probably an indication that people should interact with nature or at least spend time actively in nature, for example in the forest.

Why does forest bathing have this effect on our brain power?

A research group has based its investigations on the theory of attentional recovery. So nature would have a recovery effect on the psyche, so to speak. However, this is only relevant for particularly thought-stressful tasks that require both inward and outwardly directed attention. Internal distractions are reduced, for example thoughts that are not relevant to the tasks.

Forest bathing thus helps us to slow down our racing thoughts in the head and thus create a much-needed rest. In return, this can improve our cognitive performance.

An interesting pilot study from Germany showed an increase in gray matter in a handful of participants when they spent time in nature. The amount of increase was roughly comparable to that of memory training or regular exercise! So maybe regular time in nature really does make us smarter!

Attention and discipline

In the case of ADD and ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), nature can provide relief and reduce the intensity. Here, according to studies, green spaces around the living area alone have an effect. Windows facing the green are workplaces where one can concentrate better. With a view of trees or fields, one is also less distracted in the work and academic environment, according to the studies.

Views of nature in less developed neighborhoods have been found to lead to better self-discipline in young girls. No or poor access to nature on the other hand is associated with hyperactivity and poor attention in children.

A walk in nature leads to better test results in attention and working memory than exercise in urban environments.

Despite all these positive results, more study results are still needed here to reassure us. Especially with regard to attention and concentration, the data is not yet at a desirable level.

What does this mean for us?

On the one hand, the results show us that nature helps us to relax and is therefore particularly suitable for breaks. Although not surprisingly, a walk in the park helps us scroll on our cell phones for more than 15 minutes, especially when we are dealing with complicated and demanding tasks. Also, the results show us how important nature is in the school environment, whether it's the view, plants in the classroom, or parks in the neighborhood. Natural environments have a tremendous impact on children's attention and we should provide them with this opportunity. When a direct park is not available, trips to nature are a true gift to children's mental development. Often you don't even have to direct children to a forest bath, much more you can let them inspire you to do so, as there is a childlike curiosity and enthusiasm in them that we adults may have lost. Nature is good for us in all situations! Senior citizens also benefit mentally from contact with nature. This should definitely be incorporated into recreational activities and the design of residential facilities for seniors, and remind us family members to take our elderly relatives into the forest.

All in all: It does us all good mentally to be in nature and to have it in our surroundings. This must not only be a call to us for more walks in the forest, but also a call to urban development for more access to nature!

You can also find this article as a podcast in the "Rich Headroom"!
Have fun in the forest 🙂

Richard Staudner
The Optimizer

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