Doctors Explain How Hiking Actually Changes Our Brains

While it may seem obvious that a good hike through a forest or up a mountain can cleanse your mind, body, and soul, science is now discovering that hiking can actually change your brain… for the better!

Hiking In Nature Can Stop Negative, Obsessive Thoughts

Aside from the almost instant feeling of calm and contentment that accompanies time outdoors, hiking in nature can reduce rumination. Many of us often find ourselves consumed by negative thoughts, which takes us out of the enjoyment of the moment at best and leads us down a path to depression and anxiety at worst. But a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that spending time in nature decreases these obsessive, negative thoughts by a significant margin.

To conduct this study, researchers compared the reported rumination of participants who hiked through either an urban or a natural environment. They found those who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and they also had reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain related to mental illness. Those who walked through the urban environment, however, did not report decreased rumination.

The researchers noted that increased urbanization closely correlates with increased instances of depression and other mental illness. Taking the time to regularly remove ourselves from urban settings and spend more time in nature can greatly benefit our psychological (and physical) well-being.

Hiking While Disconnected From Technology Boosts Creative Problem Solving

A study conducted by psychologists Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer found that creative problem solving can be drastically improved by both disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature. Participants in this study went backpacking through nature for about 4 days, during which time they were not allowed to use any technology whatsoever. They were asked to perform tasks which required creative thinking and complex problem solving, and researchers found that performance on problem solving tasks improved by 50% for those who took part in this tech-free hiking excursion.

The researchers of this study noted that both technology and urban noise are incredibly disruptive, constantly demanding our attention and preventing us from focusing, all of which can be taxing to our cognitive functions. A nice long hike, sans technology, can reduce mental fatigue, soothe the mind, and boost creative thinking.

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