Nature and the Brain


Image by derekp*

I spent parts of my childhood summers at camp, where youngsters slept cricket-infused nights in canvas bungalows and swam and hiked through mosquito-blitzed days. As a teenager, I backpacked in the Adirondacks and the Rockies. I have idly gazed at sunsets on the west coasts of Michigan, of Florida, and of a small island in Ontario. I miss those days—it’s been a long time. Afterward you feel energized, refreshed. It’s common sense to see nature vacations as inherently restorative, right? True enough. But recently, as reported in the New York Times, five eminent researchers took to the environs of the San Juan River in southern Utah to see what they could discover about “getting away from it all” in nature, from the perspective of brain science. They seem to have come away from the experience with more questions than they went in with, and with some innovative ideas about ways to address them.

As part of a series called “Your Brain on Computers,” journalist Matt Richtel describes these researchers’ self-imposed digital/data embargo—your brain off computers, so to speak. As Richtel reports, over the course of five days in the wilderness the scientists sensed changes in the way their brains were functioning. Time was slowing down; the scientific discourse was punctuated by silence, by looking, by attending. Their experience sounds reminiscent of certain qualities of attention activated through deep noticing and reflection—two of the “Capacities for Imaginative Learning” articulated by Lincoln Center Institute.

Richtel describes the developing scientific discourse of the participants. Even as they were noticing their own responses to the quiet and the beauty, they were using the mental space to good effect, developing new perspective and perhaps laying the groundwork for new research initiatives. Throughout the trek they discussed ways to turn common-sense truisms into science. Is the vacation effect measurable? How does this benefit come about? Does it have something to do with taking a break from the multiple streams of information and media directed our way on a daily basis? Is it replicable in non-natural settings? “If we can find out that people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential,” said Todd Braver, a brain imaging expert from Washington University in St. Louis, “What can we do to get us back to our full potential?”

Click here to view a 3-minute video documentary about the trip that illustrates the brain-in-nature at work. Listen as these men of science describe the phenomenon from a clinical perspective and as they gain new experiential insight in confronting the challenges of the journey. Or select one of the links below if—like me—you are thinking of finding your way back to nature after a long hiatus, inspired by a new awareness of attention, deep noticing, and reflection.

American Hiking Society

American Trails

*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.


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