Have you ever spent an entire afternoon inside scrolling on TikTok? Afterwards, you probably feel tired, disoriented, and had trouble focusing. These feelings are technology fatigue and it’s not harmless–it has serious side effects to the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for many cognitive functions. It allows you to make effective decisions, focus on work tasks, and even choose a happier mood. And the prefrontal cortex transforms when “on nature.” In this Your Brain on Nature blog, we’ll discuss the benefits of nature for the prefrontal cortex, including the specific adverse health effects nature can prevent or reverse.
But What Is the Prefrontal Cortex?
The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for cognitive functioning. It impacts your focus, orientation, memory, gnosis, executive functions, praxis, language, social cognition, and visuospatial skills.
If you’re familiar with the different parts of the brain, you know each of these functions are associated with another part of the brain as well, such as how the hippocampus is associated with memory. However, the prefrontal cortex coordinates these different functions and plays a role in each as well.
When your prefrontal cortex is working correctly, you have higher cognitive functioning. When your prefrontal cortex is damaged, you can experience:
- Rumination, which leads to lower mood, depression, and anxiety
- Loss of focus
- Dementia and other memory problems
- Language and communication issues
There are other problems a damaged prefrontal cortex can cause, but these are some of the main ones. The bad news is that aspects of our modern world, such as screens, sitting inside, and high levels of stress, negatively impact the prefrontal cortex.
The good news is that the cure is right outside your window: nature. Let’s explore the different benefits nature provides your prefrontal cortex.
Nature Improves Your Mood and Focus
One of the most well-known responsibilities of the prefrontal cortex is to control your attention span. Along with determining the strength of your focus, the prefrontal cortex can also be responsible for rumination, a harmful state where you think too long and too often about your worries or things that are going wrong in your life. Interestingly, the two go hand in hand because when we spend too much time ruminating, our ability to focus decreases. Nature has been found to strengthen focus while decreasing rumination.
A 2018 study looked at the relationship between nature and the prefrontal cortex. It included two groups of participants between the ages of 64-91. The first test group stared at a bonsai plant for one minute while the second group, the control group, didn’t. The researchers then compared heart rates, pulse rates, and prefrontal cognitive activities for the two groups. The first had enhanced cognitive functioning and were less stressed than the control group.
A 2015 study researched how a nature walk could reduce self rumination. Self rumination is a cognitive function where one’s brain focuses on stress, worry, and what’s going wrong. The participants in this study took a 90 minute walk in nature, not an urban setting, and saw decreased levels of self rumination after their walk when compared to the control group who didn’t take a walk in nature.
Nature Helps You Make Better Decisions
While it is better known that nature decreases stress (partly through decreasing rumination and improving focus), you might not know that you make better decisions if you spend more time in nature.
A 2019 study looked at how nature sounds impacted prefrontal cortex and autonomic nervous activities. Two groups of female university students participated in this study. One listened to city sounds and the other listened to nature sounds. Those who listened to forest sounds had decreased oxy-Hb concentrations. These concentrations can inhibit prefrontal cortex functions, specifically focus and decision making.
Nature Prevents Dementia
Yes, you read that right. Spending time in nature can help decrease dementia! Some nature activities in particular have been linked to a lower risk of dementia, including gardening. A 2021 review of the literature on gardening and dementia discussed the link between the two. Gardening helps decrease dementia because it enhances prefrontal cortex functioning, including the ability to communicate task-specific memories to the hippocampus so that knowledge of how to do these tasks can be stored in one’s long-term memory.
A 2022 study found the link between dementia and nature went beyond gardening; even being in natural light can reduce one’s risk of dementia. This study analyzed questionnaires from over 300,000 UK citizens about how many hours a week they spent in sunlight. The researchers then did a restricted cubic spline to discover the relationship between how much sunlight they got and their risk of dementia. They found participants who spent at least 60 minutes in sunlight a day had a lower risk of dementia.
Nature Improves Memory
Beyond dementia, nature improves overall memory too. Often we think of memory as something we lose when we’re older, but it’s more than that. Your memory can improve or worsen with time based on the decisions you make, meaning if you make lifestyle decisions which harm your memory, you will face problems no matter your age. A way to improve your memory at any age is to focus on strengthening your prefrontal cortex with time in nature.
A 2019 study explored the relationship between nature and memory. The study included college-aged participants who did location recall tasks inside and outside. They were introduced to different locations and then were asked to recall the different locations. Participants could better recall the outdoor locations than indoor ones. The researchers also analyzed the cognitive processes of the participants and found the enhanced scenery of the outdoor environment improved recall abilities and episodic memory processing.
Your prefrontal cortex is partly responsible for many important cognitive functions, from memory and mood to decision making and attention span. You are fully responsible for making decisions that strengthen this part of your brain. The link between nature and improved prefrontal cortex performance is clear. The only unknown left is how much time you will spend time in nature this week.