José A. Morales García (Professor and scientific researcher in Neuroscience).

JOSE A. MORALES GARCIA

  • Professor and scientific researcher in Neuroscience, Complutense University of Madrid.

The Conversation

“I’m going to the countryside for the weekend to unwind.” We have said and heard it numerous times. People who, overwhelmed by the big city, spend a few days in nature as a means of escape. We all know it works. A few days of rural relaxation and we return to our cities “with charged batteries”.

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The concentration of people in urban centers is growing faster than desired. Currently, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and this number is expected to continue to rise. It is estimated that 7 out of 10 people in the world will live in large populations in 2050. Many of them will spend up to 90% of their stock without leaving it.

Advantages of the city… but risk for mental health

Life in the city has its advantages, but it also poses a significant risk to mental health. In fact, mood disorders, anxiety, or depression are up to 56% more common in urban settings than in rural ones.

Getaways to soothe the amygdala

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But what is the brain mechanism that allows nature to change our perception of things? Part of the answer may lie in the amygdala.

That suggested a study from a few years ago: in stressful situations, the amygdala is more activated in city dwellers than in rural areas.

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The amygdala is the region of the nervous system responsible for control of emotions and feelings. Logical, since it is in a privileged position that allows it to establish connections with a large part of the brain. One of these regions is the frontal lobe, which explains why the amygdala participates in the inhibition of behaviors and decision making.

And in addition to those already mentioned, the amygdala is involved in other activities such as intake control -is responsible for the feeling of satiety-, fear and stress managementthe structuring of memories, the regulation of sexual behavior or the control of aggressiveness.

New research shows that fear circuitry extends well beyond the amygdala, including the globus pallidus, a regulator of movement

But let’s not demonize the amygdala. After all, the essence of fear is survival, and this portion of the brain helps us survive by avoiding dangerous situations. This is possible thanks to the fact that it continually reviews the information that our senses provide us, detecting at the moment what may affect our survival (whether real or not). Once the threat is identified, it elaborates a response that takes us away from the risk, and our probability of survival increases.

The advantages of taking a relaxing forest bath

But is it possible to act on the amygdala to avoid anxiety or stress? Pharmacologically yes, although science also offers us another more economical, simple and ecological possibility: simple contact with nature.

Autumn colors accompany this young man on his walk along a path in Peterborough, New Hampshire (USA).

A recent study has shown that repeated exposure to natural environments acts positively on the activity of the amygdala. In this way, people in frequent contact with nature have less activity of their amygdala in stressful situations.

Interacting with the environment is, therefore, a way to improve mental health. The Japanese have a word about it: shinrin-yoku or forest baths.

Many other studies have reached the same conclusion. These show that contact with nature increases our feeling of happiness and decreases mental anguishsince it reduces negative emotions and stress.

Benefits for the brain

It also gives us greater capacity to manage daily tasks, improving the capacity of the so-called working memory, which allows us to temporary storage of information in the brain. To this must be added an improvement in cognitive function –attention, memory, orientation– in both adults and children, which improves their imagination, creativity and school performance.

Another advantage of going out to the countryside is that it is an activity that can be done alone. The consequence of this is that people who walk alone in nature have a lower predisposition to suffer from depression and stress.

Like any good treatment, contact with nature also requires a dose. The benefits it brings to mental health appear as long as it has the right duration: at least half an hour and at least once a week.

In conclusion, exposure to nature decreases the activity of the amygdala and has beneficial effects on regions of the brain related to stress. This suggests that country walks buffer the detrimental effects of city life. And in turn, it potentially acts as a preventive measure against the development of some mental disorders.

Green oasis that make us happier

Leaving the city in search of vegetation and clean air is not always within everyone’s reach. In this sense we have an enemy: the massive and uncontrolled growth of cities, whose urban plans do not include large green spaces. Or if they include them, it is for decorative purposes, without taking into account the benefits they could have for the state of mind of their inhabitants.

Crowd of tourists in high season on Las Ramblas

In this regard, the impact of urban green spaces on mental health has been the subject of research for years. Many scientists point to the need to include natural elements in our city projects, taking into account the many benefits they bring to our psyche.

While we wait for our cities to turn green, there is no other option but to take great care of our natural environment. It is for our good: we don’t want to upset the amygdala.