Your Brain and Being Outdoors

What’s New in Psychology?

Your Brain and Being Outdoors   

Jim Windell

           Have you ever said you need to go outside to get some fresh air?

           Do you feel better, perhaps more refreshed, after being outdoors?

           The need to be outdoors and get fresh air may not be just a whim or a way to escape the indoors and increase a general sense of well-being. Spending even short stints outdoors may actually do great things for your brain.

           That is the conclusion of a study conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE).

           The researchers, led by Simone Kühn, head of the Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, regularly examined six healthy, middle-aged city dwellers for six months. During the six months, more than 280 scans were taken of their brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The focus of the study was on self-reported behavior during the last 24 hours and in particular on the hours that participants spent outdoors prior to imaging.

           Additionally, each participant was asked about their fluid intake, consumption of caffeinated beverages, the amount of time spent outside, and physical activity, in order to see if these factors altered the association between time spent outside and the brain. Also, the duration of sunshine in the study period was taken into account.

           The results of the brain scans? As published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, the results showed that the time spent outdoors by the participants was positively related to gray matter in the right dorsolateral-prefrontal cortex, which is the superior (dorsal) and lateral part of the frontal lobe in the cerebral cortex. The dorsolateral-prefrontal cortex is the part of the cortex involved in the planning and regulation of actions as well as cognitive control. Many psychiatric disorders are known to be associated with a reduction in gray matter in the prefrontal area of the brain.

           It is noteworthy that positive results persisted even when the other factors that could also explain the relationship between time spent outdoors and brain structure were kept constant. The researchers also looked at the influence of sunshine duration, number of hours of free time, physical activity, and fluid intake on the results. Their finding was that time spent outdoors had a positive effect on the brain regardless of the other influencing factors.

           “Our results show that our brain structure and mood improve when we spend time outdoors,” said Simone Kühn, lead author of the study. “This most likely also affects concentration, working memory, and the psyche as a whole.”

           The results seem to support the previously assumed positive effects of walking on health and extend them by the concrete positive effects on the brain. “These findings provide neuroscientific support for the treatment of mental disorders,” commented Anna Mascherek, post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy of the Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE). “Doctors could prescribe a walk in the fresh air as part of the therapy.”

           Mascherek pointed out that most psychiatric disorders are associated with deficits in the prefrontal cortex and the results of this study could have particular importance to the field of psychiatry.

           Not only might walks outdoors being recommended for clients, but the brains of psychologists, too, will likely benefit from even short exposure to the outdoors.

            The researchers in this study are involved in ongoing studies, including investigating  whether there is greater benefit to the brain of being outdoors in green environments versus in urban spaces.

             To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Simone Kühn, Anna Mascherek, Elisa Filevich, Nina Lisofsky, Maxi Becker, Oisin Butler, Martyna Lochstet, Johan Mårtensson, Elisabeth Wenger, Ulman Lindenberger, Jürgen Gallinat. Spend time outdoors for your brain – an in-depth longitudinal MRI study. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, 2021; 1 DOI: 10.1080/15622975.2021.1938670


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