You have perhaps heard of “forest-bathing,” the Japanese practice of taking in the forest atmosphere to boost health.
For many, the idea has intrinsic appeal. (I work at a summer camp in leafy Vermont, and so am immediately drawn to ideas like these.)
Do we see any neural changes as a result of time spent in the forest?
The short answer: living near forests helps
According to a recent study looking at residents of Berlin, the answer is “yes.”
Those who live in or near forests demonstrate more “amygdala integrity” than those who don’t. In fact, forest-living promotes healthy amygdala development even more than living near parks or other green spaces.
The study itself is quite technical, but the headline message is clear: the place where you live can influence brain development.
A Longer Answer: are we sure?
As is always true, we have many reasons to pause before we make dramatic changes in response to this study.
First, the authors conclude that living near forest promote “amygdala integrity,” but they don’t say what “amygdala integrity” means. It’s hard to be opposed to “integrity,” but I wish I knew more about this part of the finding.
Second, we should be cautious when evaluating research that supports our own biases. If you–like me–LOVE spending time in the forest, then you’ll be tempted to wave this study about to support your long-held convictions.
“See!” you might cry, “I’ve always told you that forests were good for you and [**whispering**] your amygdala integrity!”
Research that supports our own pet causes can often take advantage of our blindspots. We should be especially careful in promoting it.
Third, there’s an unfortunate history of people getting excited about “nature is really good for your brain” research.
The New York Times got very excited about a study trumpeting the benefits of walking through a forest, despite real concerns about methodology in that study.
…despite these three reservations, I’m inclined to think that the researchers are on to something here. Living in an environment that mirrors our evolutionary heritage might very well be good for our brains’ development.