Growing up and living in the concrete environment of the city does not really benefit people’s wellbeing and vitality. But why is this? What is the effect of the city on our brain? Or of nature, for that matter. IVN, the Dutch institute for nature education and durability, asked scientific journalist Mark Mieras to check things out. And it appears that green surroundings in fact alter your brain.

City makes you unhealthy and sad

Various studies have shown that the brain of urbanites work differently from people living in the countryside. The living environment is a determining factor. People living in urban environments are more troubled by depressions and stress as well as stimuli from their surroundings. And those of us who have been exposed to the social pressure of the city as a child, appear to be extra sensitive. Certain brain centres, connected with responses to fear and emotions regarding punishment and reward, show extra activity in city-dwellers when they are exposed to criticism. So the fact that their emotional system works differently, is literally visible in the brain of city dwellers.

If stress becomes more chronic, this will have significant consequences for our health; eating habits change so people become more overweight, the workings of the immune system decline giving illnesses an opportunity, and the chance for cardio-vascular disease increases. But the brain itself also suffers. Long-term social stress plays a role in the emergence of burnout, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

A little bit of green goes a long way

Research has demonstrated that nature helps us keeping in shape. The more green in our direct environment, the longer we live, the less extra kilos, the less depressions, suicides and so on. Even a little bit of green goes a long way; the threshold for a positive ‘effect of nature’ is surprisingly low. Even seeing a single tree from a window or looking at a photo or film with a nature scene already makes dealing with stressful experiences a little easier, and things like self-discipline and self-control are influenced in a positive way. Still, looking at an actual view from a window has a greater effect than looking at a picture. These differences can also be seen in our brain.

The largest effect is measured in people who are in natural surroundings, without a building or road in sight. Trees and plants put our urbanite brain in a different mode: from being awake and alert on the visual outside world, to a more reflective and self-oriented state. Our attention span system plays an important role here. People are able to concentrate better after a walk in the park because their brain isn’t overly stimulated by the city. This attention span system, guided by external stimuli – unwanted attention – has quieted down so specific focus, playing such an important role in learning and reflection, gets more opportunity. And this reflection, in its turn, plays a major role in coping with social stress. City and nature both call on different types of attention.

Safe haven for the mind

A natural environment can be a safe haven for the over-stimulated mind. Trees and plants are unstimulating and only summon a mild fascination. This gives way to quietude and the possibility to recover so that focused attention, self-control and working memory are increased. This Attention Restoration Theory has been tested and confirmed by many studies. Looking at a picture of nature or a walk in the park appear to work miracles and have a significant positive effect on carrying out tasks needing focused attention. Children with ADHD, who are in fact over-stimulated, are extra sensitive to an overload of stimuli and have a more than average need for trees and plants. A growing number of researchers have pleaded for a daily helping of nature as a fixed element for these children. ADHD symptoms appear to be an exaggerated form of the stimulus-seeking strategy the city-dweller’s brain has developed. It should also be noted that people in cities seem to have a preference for taxing their attention system. Whoever has developed the habit to be led by impulses of their surroundings is more attracted, apparently, by a stimulating rather than an unstimulating environment. This makes those of us with the greatest need for nature the least inclined to go outside and look for it. This, in turn, leads to alienation with nature; which completes this negative circle.

These effects are enlarged with children

Alienation from nature has far-stretching consequences for children. In a less natural environment they play outside less. Besides the physical consequences, such as further spread of obesity, this also has negative effects on the emotional and cognitive growth. Children who move about and play a lot are able to concentrate better, have a more varied thinking pattern and learn more easily. This does not only entail physical exertion but also being more aware of one’s body. Most important in this respect is playing freely. More open and unstructured surroundings invite playing, exploring, discovering as well as reflection and daydreaming. And a natural, more variable environment, with trees and plants, has more to offer than a concrete playground. It is of the utmost importance that there’s more than enough green in our cities. Our brain and our well-being will thank us.

Read more in Mark Mieras’ literature study in Dutch: ‘Beetje natuur, grote invloed’ (A bit of nature, a large impact).