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Being Outdoors May Change the Way Your Brain Works, Study Says

4 minute read

Getting outside may not only change your perspective — it could actually alter the way your brain works in some unexpected ways, according to a small new study.

“Your brain seems like it has to work harder and it’s less effective when it’s outside,” explains Kyle Mathewson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alberta in Canada and the lead author of new research published in the journal Brain Research.

For the study, Mathewson, along with graduate student Joanna Scanlon, monitored the brain activity of 12 people as they listened to a series of tones. Everyone was directed to press a button when they heard one of two sounds. This task was administered twice: first while sitting still inside a dim, quiet lab, then while riding a bike outside along a street. The goal was to see how the brain functions in the two environments, and if it’s changed by an everyday outdoor activity, like bike riding.

They found, somewhat surprisingly, that while people were outside, their brains weren’t responding as robustly to the task at hand, perhaps because their attention was taxed by competing stimuli. A type of brain wave seen when the mind is at rest or meditating, which is commonly observed in the lab, all but disappeared in fresh air, Mathewson says.

Outside, “there are traffic sounds, and the sights of traffic, and all these people around you, and trees and birds and the wind and the cold,” Mathewson says. “All these extra sensations are kind of competing with the task that you’re doing,” forcing the brain to work harder to achieve the same result.

Bike riding, however, did not seem to make much of a difference on brain activity. While the indoor group was sedentary in this study, in one of Mathewson’s prior experiments, people rode a stationary bike indoors. Brain activity while biking inside did not differ much from when people sat quietly indoors, he says. The effects aren’t simply due to fresh air, either. When the researchers conducted a follow-up experiment, during which they played a recording of traffic sounds in a lab environment, they also observed reduced brain activity.

More research is needed. It’s too soon to tell whether these brain changes are positive or negative, and Mathewson says the results may not hold true for every outdoor environment. A tranquil meadow, for example, may not stress the brain in the same way as a busy urban street. Past research, in fact, has shown a host of mental health benefits associated with spending time in nature. “Going outside in this case might have appeared bad because we went outside beside busy traffic,” he says, “but if we went outside into nature, we might have found different effects.”

Since people in the study were still able to complete the test outdoors, despite their diminished cognitive response, the researchers are also repeating the experiment using progressively more difficult tasks, Mathewson says. “We think this task was too easy and that we weren’t able to tap into the effect,” he says. “Now we’re going to try to push a little bit harder and get more and more difficult tasks to see where the brain breaks down.”

The good news is that recent breakthroughs in technology — the creation of small, portable brain monitoring equipment that can be brought outside and on the go — not only made this study possible, but will continue to improve follow-up studies, Mathewson says. “This is going to open up a whole new field of studying people in their natural habitat,” he says.

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com