Mental Health Hacks Explained: The Benefits of Outside

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

As part of World Mental Health Day 2020, Dean Burnett and Cosmic Shambles asked people to submit their ‘Mental Health Hacks’, the tricks, techniques and approaches they’ve worked out, that help them deal with when their rebellious mind turns against them.

The best 5 Mental Health Hacks win a copy of Dean’s Audiobook Psycho-Logical, all about what’s going on in the brain when we experience mental health problems, and will have a Cosmic Shambles post dedicated to explaining how and why they could work, in the neurological sense. This is one of those posts.

The Covid19 pandemic, the one currently flaring up all over again, has had various significant impacts on our civilisation. One of these, arguably a rare positive consequence of the pandemic, is that it’s given most people a renewed or enhanced appreciation of being outdoors.

There are logical reasons for this. The outside world is, obviously, very well ventilated, which drastically reduces the odds of Covid19 transmission. There’s also much more room in the wall-free outdoors, making social distancing easier. And when long-distance travel and socialising are restricted, outdoors offers an alternative to your own home, where you’re spending a lot more time than you’d perhaps like.

But long before the physical benefits of embracing the outside world, the benefit of being outdoors for our mental health was well established. This was summed up nicely with a Mental Health hack from Twitterer Katie, AKA @kappatau134

While this was actually a tweet from a thread she did back in April when lockdown first kicked in, it remains 100% valid. The notion that merely going outside, or even just seeing the outside world, can have beneficial effects on our mental health may be seem surprising of far-fetched, but there’s a lot of data to support it.

Some of the benefits of going outside for your mental health are fairly straightforward. For instance, as Katie suggests, if you’re outside you’re usually going somewhere, often on foot, so are getting more exercise.

The phrase “You should get more exercise” is often an infuriating one when levelled at those with mental health problems, usually when it’s uttered by those who do not, and have never, dealt with issues of their own. It’s often a sign of ignorance, judgement, victim blaming, misunderstanding, and so on. This is unhelpful in numerous ways, partly because it often makes someone with mental health problems feel worse, and partly because it puts a very negative slant on exercising. And the latter is bad because exercise is reliably known to be good for your mental health.

This isn’t a weight issue or fat-shaming thing, we’re talking basic biology here. Your brain, the source of all mental health problems, is still a physiological organ, and the better shape your body’s in, the better it can supply and maintain your brain, thus improving wellbeing etc.

There’s also the vitamin-D you get from direct exposure to sunlight, and the various advantages of fresh air as opposed to indoor air, like the relatively higher oxygen levels, something else which improves your brain’s ability to function.

But perhaps the more intriguing benefit of being outdoors is that our brains seem to have evolved to function better there. Or, more specifically, in natural environments, ones with notable plant life and greenery.


Take one of these a day, and see me in a fortnight

This is due to Attention Restoration Theory (ART), first proposed by psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 80s, but which has since been supported by numerous studies and observations, even in the medical setting.

Basically, ART argues that the human brain can function better when in a natural environment. Whereas artificial, human-constructed environments are often more full of things that engage our attention (billboards, buildings, traffic, screens, other people, constant noises etc.), all of this stuff demands our attention in ways that means the brain expends effort on registering them, assessing them, filtering them out, and so on. The general point is, all this directed attention means the mere act of being conscious in a human-constructed environment is draining for the brain.

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This isn’t the case in natural environments. Rather than directed attention, natural scenes instead engage fascination, a different type of attention system whereby the brain doesn’t have to expend much or any effort in perceiving what’s around us. Our brains instinctively like what they see when we’re observing in a lush plant-filled scene. And therefore, nature (i.e. outdoor) environments are typically, and fundamentally, less stressful than artificial ones.

And this has restorative effects. Removed from the excess stimulation of an urban environment and given the chance to rest (insofar as the brain ever really does that), exposure to nature can literally improve the functioning of our brains. And we don’t even need to be immersed in it; sometimes merely seeing nature through a window is helpful enough. It’s even been shown to aid physical recovery when recuperating in hospitals.

Why would this be the case? Why would our brains be so receptive and responsive, in such a positive way, to looking at a bunch of leaves? There are many possible explanations, but when you consider that we are a species that evolved in the wild, where mere survival was the overarching goal, it arguably makes logical sense. Lush green environments mean abundant life, which means water, food, safety, abundant resources, and so forth. Why wouldn’t our brains evolve to respond very positively to such contexts?

And if we found natural environments as exhausting as artificial ones, we wouldn’t spend long in them, thus hampering our odds of survival.

But whatever the evolutionary mechanism, it seems clear that the human brain finds exposure to natural scenes and the outside world beneficial, even if it’s just looking through a window at it. This may explain why even the most densely packed cities have green spaces and they’re always the most sought after locations, why we live in buildings designed to keep the outside world at bay but still fill them with plants, why we ‘escape’ to the country, why ‘Forest Bathing’ is a real thing.

And it may explain why merely staring out the window at the world outside can still be helpful for your mental health.

Dean Burnett’s book Psycho-Logical is available from Audible. A print version is due in Feb 2021, via Faber.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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