There’s rural and then there’s urban—those who relish in wide open spaces and those who prefer the city bustle. I’ve always been the former: I grew up in a very small town with acres of farmland, woodland, and waterways. And while I love the quiet, a good hike on the weekends, and friendly neighbors, I’ve always wanted to try out the city lifestyle—the fast pace, the towering buildings, the eclectic crowd.
I want to challenge myself, but I stand stagnant in my hesitation. I worry that I won’t be able to thrive in the absence of nature, as the great outdoors have always provided such a comfort.
And it turns out, I might be smart for thinking twice, as a new study “In search of features that constitute an ‘enriched environment’ in humans: Associations between geographical properties and brain structure” conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development found that city dwellers who live closer to forests were more likely to have healthier amygdala structures and able to better handle stressful situations, furthering research that suggests nature plays a big role in our mental health.
Past research has shown that city dwellers are more at risk for mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. It has also shown that city dwellers have higher activity levels in their amygdala, which plays a key role in stress-processing. But this research team wanted to better understand what and how factors affect this area of the brain, specifically nature. “Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption that the environment can shape brain structure and function. That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development,” explains leader of the study Simone Kuhn.
To investigate, the team examined 341 adults, aged between 61 and 82 years old, who were participants in a larger study called Berlin Aging Study II (BASE-II) which is examining the physical, psychological, and social conditions for healthy aging. The researchers administered memory and reasoning tests and also evaluated the structure of these participants’ amygdala’s using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). To understand what influence nature could have on the amygdala, the researchers also assessed how close the participants lived to nature, based on information from the European Environment Agency’s Urban Atlas.
The researchers found that there was indeed a link between brain health and where the participants lived: the city dwellers who lived closer to a forest were more likely to show signs of a physiologically healthy amygdala structure and were subsequently better able to handle stress. This finding remained true when certain factors like educational qualifications and income levels were accounted for. While it is not possible to undoubtedly determine whether living closer to nature has positive effects on this region of the brain or if people with a healthier amygdala happen to prefer places of residence near a forest based on this study, the researchers believe in the former. However, further longitudinal studies must be done before they can say for sure.
“Our study investigates the connection between urban planning features and brain health for the first time. By 2050, almost 70% of the world population is expected to be living in cities. These results could therefore be very important for urban planning. In the near future, however, the observed association between the brain and closeness to forests would need to be confirmed in further studies and other cities,” explains Ulman Lindenberger, coauthor of the study and Director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
So, if I do decide to move to a land of skyscrapers and bustling crowds, it may be beneficial to my health—or at least my amygdala—if I choose a home on the outskirts near a forest. Not only will this serve as a little piece of home, but it will likely help me cope with the stress that comes with moving and taking on an entirely new lifestyle.
Source: Max Planck Institute “Living Near a Forest Keeps Your Amygdala Healthier.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 13 October 2017.
Original Research: Full open access research for “In search of features that constitute an “enriched environment” in humans: Associations between geographical properties and brain structure” by Simone Kühn, Sandra Düzel, Peter Eibich, Christian Krekel, Henry Wüstemann, Jens Kolbe, Johan Martensson, Jan Goebel, Jürgen Gallinat, Gert G. Wagner & Ulman Lindenberger in Scientific Reports. Published online September 20 2017 doi:10.1038/s41598-017-12046-7