The effect of nature on the human brain

For many years, poets, philosophers, medical practitioners, urban planners and even politicians have extolled the psychological and physiological health benefits of spending time in nature. We all seem to know intuitively that being surrounded by the greenery of fields, forests and parkland is good for mind body and soul, but many of us struggle to ‘schedule’ nature into our busy lives – it’s still a nice-to-have, rather than a priority. An increasing body of scientific research into the effect that being in nature has on the brain shows that nature could be used in a more prescriptive way, to counteract the sensory overload of modern life. How can we better harness the power of nature in the world we live in today?

Living in the modern world

Today, the majority of the population lives in an urban setting, and this trend is set to continue. Many of us work inside buildings, and if we are lucky enough to have a view, it often looks out onto other buildings. We spend around 90% of our lives indoors, according to some estimates, and we are surrounded by technology and bombarded with information 24/7 from many different sources. When the brain is overloaded, it struggles to interpret, prioritise or process data – this is then communicated to the body that it is time to react (fight or flight), which results in anxiety or discomfort. This response can affect our ability to perform or participate fully and have a detrimental effect on our health. But a growing body of scientists are exploring the power of nature to relieve this stress and mental fatigue.

Improved cognitive function

Scientists have begun to quantify what we have always known, that nature is good for us. Advances in neuroscience and psychology mean that we can measure stress hormones, heart rates, brain waves and protein markers – all of which point towards nature having a profound effect on our human cognitive function and mental health.

In a recent National Geographic article, “This is Your Brain on Nature,” the author shadowed cognitive psychologist, David Strayer and a group of psychology students on a camping trip to experience what Strayer describes as the “three-day effect.”

According to Strayer, being in the moment, in nature for two to three days, allows the pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s command centre, to dial down and take a rest. The result is a significant improvement in qualitative thinking.

Previous studies conducted by Strayer have shown that backpackers immersed in nature for three days, completely unplugged from all forms of media and technology, improved their performance on a creative, problem-solving task by a remarkable 50%.

Directed attention and involuntary attention    

Directed attention is the ability to focus on the chosen task and ignore distractions. Prolonged and concentrated effort leads to mental fatigue, loss of effectiveness and stress.

Involuntary attention doesn’t require a prolonged effort to resist distractions – this kind of focus allows the brain to disengage and refresh its ability to exert directed attention on the task at hand.

Improved physical health

Several statistical studies have analysed the physical effect of living near green space on city dwellers – benefits include a boost in heart and metabolic rates and lower mortality and incidence of conditions such as depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and migraines. Naturally, the people living near these spaces could just be exercising more, but a study conducted by epidemiologist Richard Mitchell at the University of Glasgow showed less disease and death in people who lived near parks, even if they didn’t use them.

The ills of stress

It’s thought that nature boosts physical health by primarily reducing stress and all the negative repercussions that has on the body. When we are subjected to sustained periods of stress, the cells of our immune system are unable to respond properly and consequently produce levels of inflammation that lead to disease. The effects of stress can be far-reaching:  

Stress hormones stimulate a desire for foods full of sugar, starch and fat – an excess of these foods can lead to heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In addition to this, it’s possible that stress can mean we burn less calories than usual. An article published in Biological Psychiatry found that women subjected to stressful events burned less calories than those who ate the same meal but were not subjected to stress.

Stress leads to sleep deprivation, which impairs memory and emotional control, which impedes our ability to cope with stress, creating a vicious circle.

Stress has been linked to heart disease for some time – in a study published in Nature Medicine, a researcher from Harvard Medical School reported that blood samples taken from subjects under stress contained a surplus of white blood cells, which causes hardening of the arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Stress can trigger episodes of depression – its throws out of balance several brain neurotransmitters systems, such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine (often called the happy hormones).

Even views of nature induce positive effects

So, we know that nature enhances cognitive performance, reduces stress and promotes good health. In fact, we have known this for years – healing gardens have been incorporated into hospital settings since the Middle Ages.  

A well-known study, published by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich in 1984, found that natural views had a restorative effect on patients recovering from surgery in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. The study looked at data over a nine-year period. Windows of the hospital wing looked out on either a small stand of deciduous trees or a brown brick wall. The patients with the tree view had comparatively shorter post-operative hospital stays, had fewer negative evaluative comments from nurses, took fewer moderate and strong analgesic doses, and had slightly lower scores for minor post-surgical complications. The study concluded that natural views elicit positive feelings, reduce fear in stressed subjects, hold interest, and may block or reduce stressful thoughts.

How does this translate to the modern office?

Over generations, urbanisation has meant that many of us have become disconnected with nature, and we are therefore missing out on the benefits that nature can provide. How can we design urban spaces, and the buildings that we spend so much time in, so that contact with nature is a continuous and sustained part of life?

Biophilic design is an ideal way of incorporating a daily dose of nature into our lives. Judith Heerwagen is a leader in the biophilic design movement and advocates for a more humane approach to how we design buildings. In the article ‘Biophilia, Health, and Well-being’ she writes, “If there is an evolutionary basis for biophilia…then contact with nature is a basic human need: not a cultural amenity, not an individual preference, but a universal primary need. Just as we need healthy food and regular exercise to flourish, we need ongoing connections with the natural world.” Bringing nature indoors in new and creative ways is much more than aesthetic enhancement: it’s brain care!

Escape to the ‘living room’

At Vantage we are passionate about the effect that natural planting can have on human health and performance and believe it should be placed at the heart of any office design project. If it improves mental and physical wellbeing and increases cognitive function and creativity, what employer doesn’t want to ensure its people are happier and healthier as well as operating at their peak level?

We’re pioneering the idea of planted retreats or ‘living rooms’ within the workspace where people can truly escape and be surrounded by nature – a space that provides wall-to-ceiling planting. As well as providing perfect opportunities for de-stressing, such spaces can also facilitate individual or collective moments of true creativity and innovation.

Let’s design spaces where biophilia and nature can be enjoyed, and our people can thrive and flourish. Contact one of our friendly planting experts at to find out more.