The Science Behind “The Feeling:” What a Hike Does for the Brain

Categories:Guest Post | Outdoors

“I found a great house on a corner lot!”

These enthusiastic words came from my wife, the landscape fanatic. I knew our search for a house was over. A corner lot meant more land, and more land meant more trees. This neglected little house on a big lot had only 2 trees – and one of them needed to be cut down.

We closed on the house in August, and on Labor Day we planted 18 trees. Over the past two decades in the house, we planted about 20 trees on the lot – facing south, because that’s the only way to give most trees a chance in Alaska.

Why did we bother with the trees?

Because we now feel like we have a little piece of all the trails we used to hike, right there, in our backyard. It gives us a pinch of that familiar feeling.

You can step into any part of our yard and smell pine, cedar, and juniper and be transported to a mountain trail. You feel a breeze buffered by thousands of pine needles, smell the crisp pungency of juniper, and hear the rustling of birds in the boughs of the trees

That “Feeling”

The “feeling” of being on the trail is not just a vague “sentiment.”
It’s a scientific fact. The body of studies that show changes taking place in the human brain as we hike or just walk through natural scenery is growing by the day.

It seems that a simple hike allows you, even if for a few hours, to forget about that report you should’ve submitted yesterday.

Not Just Exercise

You might think that the changes that take place in our brains when we are involved with nature come from the physical exercise we get. That may be part of it, but it doesn’t end there.

Studies done on people who live in urban environments with little to no “green space” are nothing short of shocking.
Urban dwellers are more likely to experience psychological problems and have elevated levels of stress hormones. However, urban types who visit nearby parks tested immediately after their visit, have lower stress hormones.

First-hand experience

City folk who live near a park also have lower rates of stress hormones. I can relate to that. Our corner lot is across the street from a park. I’ve caught myself, many times, breathing in the scent of nature and watching the sunrise over the waters of our neighborhood pond.

A study done by Stanford University has specifically targeted people living in urban areas. Part of the study measured the mental effects of students on campus. Those who walked to class through the lushly landscaped parts of campus were much happier when they arrived and more likely to pay attention.

On the other hand, those who walked for the same period of time, but who chose a route near traffic, were not as happy or attentive.

Neurological Changes

So, we know that spending some time in nature is good for your body (exercise) and mind (mood), but what about neurological changes?

Spurred by the findings of their unofficial campus survey, the participants of the Stanford study began to recognize the significance of “brooding.” More common in city folk, brooding is a word used to describe people with constant morbid thoughts and obsessed with the negative factors in his or their life. The Stanford studies show that the tendency to brood is disproportionately more common with people in the city as opposed to those who live outside of cities.

Better sleep

Countless people suffer from chronic fatigue – it’s very real and it comes down to the “kind of tired” that can’t be fixed with 10 hours of sleep or a better mattress. Furthermore, it’s the kind of fatigue that doesn’t allow you to sleep well in the first place.

The way to address it is crafting a solid plan that involves taking time for yourself, enjoying the little things, analyzing the stuff in your life that’s worth (or not) worrying about – and yes, taking a nice long walk.

Part of the brain to blame

The part of the brain that is prone to excessive worry is the subgenual prefrontal cortex. Dr. Greg Bratman, who was head of the Stanford studies, said they could track the activity of this section of the brain. Through scans that record blood flow to the brain, they were able to take a brain scan before and after a walk.

Not surprisingly, the participants in the study who walked through a beautiful park for an hour and a half had far less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. The group asked to walk along a busy highway showed no improvement. Their depressed mood had not changed.

Societal Changes

As a society, we have become more hermit-like.

We spend our time wrapped in urban noise or working/playing with technology that constantly demands our attention.
Teenagers sleep with their cell phones in case they want to text during the night. It’s estimated that American children spend 8-9 hours a day using technology, and only 6 percent of children will free-play outside.

Part of this is due to worries over sun exposure, while part of it is due to perceived dangers when allowing children to play at the park or in the yard. Fear of strangers and germs contribute to the decision to stay indoors all day.

Back in the day

When I was 10, I would saddle my horse and ride alongside the highway to get an Icee at the little store 5 miles away.
I would then explore the country, riding for hours without adult supervision. As a grandparent today, I would NEVER allow my kids to do something like that. There’s just too much “meanness” out there. But, societal changes don’t have to rule our lives. The great outdoors is still great, and we benefit when we embrace it. A long hike, without Spotify or Pandora, reduces mental fatigue and stress hormones.

Mental Changes

The Stanford studies were just the beginning. Other studies have shown that when we hike through nature, whether around the neighborhood park or the Rocky Mountains, we become more creative. That’s right; people score higher on creativity tests after they have spent some time in nature.

More time outside is even being prescribed for children with ADHD. Children are increasingly diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.A number of studies have shown that children diagnosed with ADHD, who are allowed to spend significant amounts of time in natural settings, exhibit fewer symptoms of the condition.

This is in contrast to controlled activities in other areas. Sometimes, parents of children with ADHD enroll their children in multiple after-school activities, hoping to help them focus.
Yet, according to a study done by Drs. Frances Kuo and Andrea Taylor:

“Green outdoor settings appear to reduce ADHD symptoms in children across a wide range of individual, residential, and case characteristics.”

Lifestyle Changes

As we said, the Great Outdoors is still there. You may have to drive a few blocks, but you will find that time spent in nature makes you calmer and more content. The scientists have big words to describe it, like “hippocampus,” “subgenual prefrontal cortex,” and “endorphins,” but we know it as “PEACE.”

Enough reading, take a walk

Take your kids with you, whether it’s for a walk around the park or light hike. Don’t look at it as a challenge to be conquered but as a mini-vacation. Leave the earbuds out and let the kids chase the geese – they’ll never catch one…let them chase anyway.

Hike the nature trails, stroll through the arboretum, plant a tree. The science behind that “feeling” is as solid as that log bridge on your favorite trail.


About the Author: James G.M. is a writer, blogger and a zealot for The Great Outdoors. These days, in his own words, he’s more about talking the talk than walking the walk. Currently an editor with TheSleepStudies.com, he specializes in reviewing gear, from air mattresses to hiking boots and beyond

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