GUEST POST: brainwaves in the wild

Our research director takes a break from the lab, and explores what happens to our brain when we study outdoors.

September 30, 2020

Most neuroscience studies happen in a lab. Let’s get in touch with our wild science and explore what happens to our brain when we study it in the great outdoors. Yes, this tent was the research lab. No, it was not intact by the end of the study.

Technology has been a wonderful tool for humanity, from life-saving medicine to the conveniences of modern life. Just 100 years ago, life looked very different from today (though ironically, they also dealt with a pandemic). This is a blink of the eye when you consider the scale of human history, so our bodies primarily haven’t adapted to the rapid change imposed on us by technology. Despite the neuroplasticity in our brain, even it has struggled to adjust to the hyper-real pace at which we now receive information and the prolonged intensity of what modern life demands of us. The prevalence of mental health conditions has sky-rocketed in recent years, demanding a widely accessible solution to address this issue. While training more mental health specialists and reducing barriers to treatment access will be part of the solution, what if the most effective solution to the intrusion of technology in our lifestyle is a return to our natural environments?

For decades, exposure to green spaces has been linked to improvements in attention1 and emotional stability2 and reduced risk for many physical health conditions3. The underlying logic is that since constant exposure to an urban lifestyle results in continuous demands for attention and is full of stressors, time in natural environments will restore our attention4 and recalibrate our stress response system5. While studies have shown benefits from as short as 40-second microbreaks 6, we know a lot less about longer exposures to nature and what happens in the brain to mediate these restorative changes. This research question prompted a series of studies at the University of Utah, where participants completed a comprehensive brain assessment, complete with brainwave and heart rate recordings. The twist is that these assessments were done in the middle of the Utah desert during a four-day camping trip and compared to scores in urban settings. Yes, you read that right: a neuroscience study conducted not in a lab, but outside fully exposed to the elements. After several years of collecting and analyzing data (science moves slow, ok), these studies have finally gotten the scientific gold-stamp of approval and have been published in peer-reviewed journals. So, what does this neuroscience in the wild study say about returning to natural environments?

Hypothesis #1: After some time to chill, attention-related brain signals would show higher activity7. To test this, the research team had people do the most boring and attention-demanding video game ever and look at brain signals that turn on the attention network. In one sample, this hypothesis was refuted, while in a follow-up study this hypothesis was supported. #mixedmessages. Since the follow-up study had more people and better equipment, its findings were better supported leading to the conclusion that your attention networks are more easily engaged while you are in nature. Surely Hypothesis #2 will be more clear. Certain patterns of heartbeats can indicate information about our brain’s emotional networks, so the research team hypothesized that they would find patterns of relaxation8. Instead, they found patterns that indicated less relaxation than urban environments, the opposite of expectations.

If it sounds like neuroscientists are confused a lot, that’s because we are. Writing this blog article would be a breeze if everything turned out exactly as expected, but the reality is that the brain is incredibly complicated. Scientists are often wrong a lot more than they are right as they try to understand some of the biggest questions that face humanity. An unsupported hypothesis is just an opportunity to refine our understanding with the new information we learned and be less wrong next time. So, time to update our understanding of what happens to our brain when we go camping from the final results.

One important unique feature of these studies was how long the exposure to nature was (4 days) compared to a more usual 30 minutes (for logistical reasons). Its entirely possible that while previous studies may have shown relaxation effects during short exposures, remaining in this relaxed state could make it easier to self-motivate and engage attention networks when needed. This small change could have huge mental health implications though since the same attention-engagement brainwaves examined in these studies have been found to be smaller in people with ADHD9. Imagine kids with ADHD getting a hiking prescription before being prescribed stimulant medications. While we need a lot more research on this topic before that case could be made, these initial studies highlight that this could be a possibility if future studies can confirm these findings. One additional implication of these studies is an argument for preserving the natural world and increasing widespread accessibility to it. Even if ecotherapy for ADHD doesn’t catch on, these studies join a growing evidence base for health benefits when greenspace is integrated into our lifestyles. While technology has tremendously improved our lives, there can be too much of a good thing and a quick walk through the park can be a great first line of defence for brain health.


1. Ohly, H., White, M. P., Wheeler, B. W., Bethel, A., Ukoumunne, O. C., Nikolaou, V., & Garside, R. (2016). Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review of the attention restoration potential of exposure to natural environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 19(7), 305-343.

2. Mygind, L., Kjeldsted, E., Hartmeyer, R., Mygind, E., Stevenson, M. P., Quintana, D. S., & Bentsen, P. (2019). Effects of public green space on acute psychophysiological stress response: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the experimental and quasi-experimental evidence. Environment and Behavior, 0013916519873376.

3. Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental research, 166, 628-637.

4. Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of environmental psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

5. Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of environmental psychology, 11(3), 201-230.

6. Lee, K. E., Williams, K. J., Sargent, L. D., Williams, N. S., & Johnson, K. A. (2015). 40-second green roof views sustain attention: The role of micro-breaks in attention restoration. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 42, 182-189.

7. LoTemplio, S. B., Scott, E. E., McDonnell, A. S., Hopman, R. J., Castro, S., McNay, D., McKinney, T.L., Greenberg, K., Payne, B.R, & Strayer, D. L. (2020). Nature as a potential modulator of the error-related negativity: A registered report. International Journal of Psychophysiology.

8. Scott, E. E., LoTemplio, S. B., McDonnell, A. S., McNay, D., Greenberg, K., McKinney, T.L., Uchino, B. N., & Strayer, D. L. (2020). The Autonomic Nervous System in its Natural Environment: Immersion in Nature is Associated with Changes in Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability. Psychophysiology.

9. Liotti, M., Pliszka, S. R., Perez, R., Kothmann, D., & Woldorff, M. G. (2005). Abnormal brain activity related to performance monitoring and error detection in children with ADHD. Cortex, 41(3), 377-388.

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