When many people look at a beautiful sunrise, they feel happy, relaxed, even inspired. Have you ever wondered why?
Well, even if you haven't, dozens of scientists have. And they've uncovered some surprising — and surprisingly awesome — ways the mind responds to these natural scenes. It's not just because sunrises are pretty, but because they're pretty amazing examples of our timeless relationship with the planet.
Over recent years, many studies have delved into understanding what happens to the human brain when it comes into contact with nature. Whether that means taking a walk through the park or simply looking at images of the great outdoors, "there is something profound going on," according to David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah. He and other researchers hypothesize that nature benefits the human brain primarily by reducing stress.
A Japanese researcher at Chiba University, Yoshifumi Miyazaki, believes the human body and brain relaxes when it is immersed in appealing, natural atmosphere because that's where they evolved. To prove his hypothesis, he and a team conducted a study in which 84 subjects walked in seven different forests, while another 84 walked around city centers. The nature goers experienced a 16 percent decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone and a two percent drop in blood pressure.
In another study, physician Matilda van den Bosch gave test subjects in Sweden a stressful math task. After completing the task, some subjects watched 15 minutes of nature scenes and birdsong in a 3-D virtual reality room while others sat in a plain room for the same amount of time. She discovered that the heart rate variability (which decreases with stress) of subjects who watched nature scenes returned to normal more quickly than those who did not.
The key to reducing stress and mental fatigue, two environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan argue, is nature's visual elements, such as sunrises, streams, and butterflies. These images encourage a "soft fascination," allowing the mind to enter "a more reflective mode," in which it wander, rest, and recover from the stressors of city life.
Using functional MRI, Korean researchers analyzed people's brain activity when viewing different images. When shown urban scenes, the subjects' brains responded with more blood flow to the amygdala, which processes fear and anxiety. Perhaps most interestingly, nature scenes set off the anterior cingulate and the insula, the parts of the brain associated with altruism and empathy.
So looking at nature — even for just a few minutes — doesn't just benefit your own mental health. It can also help you help others. Even if you don't wake up early enough to catch a real sunrise, you can still watch the above video and begin your day as the best version of yourself.
(H/T: National Geographic)
Cover image via Unsplash,