How Nature affects the brain ?
In the evolutionary development of our species, the brain has increased its size and improved its functioning in order to adapt to the environment and ensure our survival. This evolution over millions of years has occurred in open spaces, in direct contact with nature, and this has generated brain circuits that respond specifically to this type of environment. However, in urban contexts we are exposed to radically different situations (enclosed spaces, agglomerations, noise, traffic, pollution, etc.) that can cause multiple pathologies, many of them linked to an excessive activation of the physiological stress response. In fact people who live in cities show a greater activation of the tonsil than those who live in rural settings, also affecting the size of the city and the time lived in it. And something similar happens with the anterior cingulate cortex, a region that participates in emotional regulation.
There are very recent studies that show that the time we spend in the natural environment affects our global health (cognitive, emotional, social and physical), but also the time we were in contact with nature during childhood. It has been proven that children who grew up in completely urban settings are 55% more likely to develop mental illnesses in adolescence and adulthood than those who grew up in more natural settings (Engemann et al ., 2019). In addition, the effect seems to be cumulative.
At the brain level, relevant structural changes have also been identified. Early exposure to green spaces is positively associated with the volume of white and gray matter in some important regions of the brain (such as the prefrontal cortex, premotor cortex or cerebellum; see Figure 1) and its maximum volumes predict better test performance. Cognitive, that is, a better working memory and a lower lack of attention, as it has been shown in an investigation in which Primary students have participated in Barcelona (Dadvand et al ., 2018). These same authors have identified that green areas have lower levels of air pollution and noise that also have indirect benefits for brain development.
In the case of adults, as demonstrated by the Phenotype project, developed in four European cities, spending more minutes in contact with nature entails more time dedicated to physical activity, an increase in social contacts with neighbors and better well-being general (Kruize et al ., 2019).
Everything discussed above has enormous educational repercussions and must be kept in mind in a real Escuela con Cerebro.
Benefits of nature to education and learning
Look deeply into nature and then you will understand everything better.
Next, we analyze some evidence that explains how nature can improve learning. Ming Kuo’s research (Kuo et al ., 2019) serves as a reference to deepen the theme and analyze it from the neuroeducational factors that we have identified that are critical. Some of the most beneficial consequences (the vast majority are directly linked) of contact with nature for learning are the following:
1. Improve attention
Attention is a critical factor in learning, but many students show attention deficits in the classroom due, for example, to distractions, mental fatigue or specific disorders, as in the case of ADHD. Well, a simple walk through a natural environment is enough to recharge the brain circuits associated with mental fatigue and improve performance in tasks involving executive attention (Berman et al ., 2009). This attention network linked to concentration and self-control improves if students perform academic tasks in classrooms with open windows that overlook green spaces (Li and Sullivan, 2016; see figure 2).
Along with this, in a longitudinal study involving 2593 Primary students from 36 schools in Barcelona, there was an improvement in cognitive performance (in attention tasks and working memory) of those exposed to more green spaces (Dadvand et al ., 2015; see figure 3), As we mentioned earlier, it seems that exposure to air pollution from school traffic in urban settings can impair proper cognitive development in childhood.
In the specific case of children with ADHD, a mere twenty-minute walk through a park makes them concentrate much more on subsequent tasks than if they do it in a typically urban environment (Faber Taylor and Kuo, 2009) and if they regularly play in Open green spaces clearly reduce the characteristic symptoms of ADHD (Faber Taylor and Kuo, 2011). Not forgetting that the use of a digital device in a green space counteracts the attentional benefits of natural environments (Jiang et al ., 2019).
2. Decrease stress levels
Studies reveal that natural environments can positively influence the physiology of stress, both in adulthood and childhood. For example, Primary students who studied a whole day a week in the middle of nature, throughout the course, showed a daily reduction in their levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol, unlike those who did it in the closed environment of the school , which maintained stable cortisol levels despite the natural tendency in childhood to reduce during the day from the maximum morning (Dettweileret al., 2017). Relacionado con lo anterior, parece que los baños de bosque o shinrin-yoku (práctica popular japonesa que es más que en un simple paseo; es sumergirse en el ambiente del bosque conectando con la naturaleza a través de los cinco sentidos; Li, 2018; ver figura 4) pueden tener múltiples beneficios para la salud, tal como han demostrado las investigaciones de Yoshifumi Miyazaki.
Regarding stress, a recent review has identified significantly lower cortisol levels in people who intervened in these forest baths, although simple expectations of leaving the urban environment already had a positive incidence (Antonelli et al ., 2019) .
Regarding schools, it has been proven that views of natural environments can have physiological benefits on relaxation and inappropriate stress (Jo et al., 2019). In addition, yards with green spaces, which can be used in any subject and educational stage, are very suitable to combat stress and work resilience (Chawla et al ., 2014). The benefits of going out to play throughout the course, as long as you do (the little ones will begin to detest being locked up), are greater than the discomfort associated with wet or muddy clothes.
3. Improves self control
Contact with nature has a direct positive effect on self-discipline in childhood. In a study involving girls and boys between 7 and 12 years of age, a better performance was found in tasks that required concentration, inhibition of impulses and postponement of the reward in those who lived in the vicinity of green spaces ( Faber Taylor et al., 2002)
A recent review suggests that, although concrete studies on the subject are lacking, nature could be a promising tool for working on self-regulation in childhood (Weeland et al ., 2019). All this has a special relevance in the case of children with ADHD (Figure 5), as we mentioned in the first section, because we know that this disorder is accompanied by specific deficits in the development of the executive functions of the brain. In practice, it seems that nature would recharge our brain with energy, which would have an impact on self-control, since everything indicates that it constitutes a limited resource.
4. Increase motivation and active commitment
Although many teachers are afraid to move the context of the classroom abroad because they believe that it compromises concentration in later classes, it seems that it is not. Students are usually more motivated and committed to learning in natural environments and, in addition, this implies a better participation in the following tasks, already in the classic classroom context (Kuo et al.,2018). Nature seems to have a positive impact on mood and this has a greater motivation, enjoyment and commitment of students in natural environments, which confirms the entire educational community. For example, in three schools in the United Kingdom that have introduced teaching units developed in external settings (the vast majority in natural settings), both students and teachers have identified improvements in the commitment to learning, concentration and behavior accompanied by greater general well-being Emotional (a sense of freedom according to the students themselves) and behavioral improvement was accompanied by some enriching learning experiences from the sensory, motor and cognitive perspective (Marchant et al., 2019), something that we believe is especially relevant in early childhood where it is essential to integrate the different sensory channels (the child picks the flower, looks at it, smells it, touches it, etc; always going on from the concrete to the abstract, and not vice versa.
5. Promotes physical activity
Physical activity in childhood has a positive impact on the brain, with a special impact on executive functions. Without forgetting the cardiorespiratory benefits and all that entails on health, combat sedentary behaviors in the present times. In the context of the classroom, active stoppages of a few minutes are sufficient to improve concentration during subsequent academic assignments (Hillman et al., 2019). And what happens if we do the exercise outdoors? It seems that outdoor learning spaces, in general, and green spaces, in particular, can be great catalysts for physical activity, especially when we assume that these environments are important to our health. Green areas facilitate physical activity by walking, running, cycling, etc. And all this constitutes a great way to combat stress. In fact, a simple 15-minute walk through a wooded area decreases cortisol concentration much more than when it occurs in an urban environment (Kobayashi et al., 2019). Likewise, the stoppages during the school day that promote children’s free play in green spaces (the playgrounds as learning opportunities) recharge the brain circuits that allow attention to be restored (Amicone et al ., 2018). As it has been verified in the research in the schools of Barcelona mentioned at the beginning, the number of trees in the schools constitutes a good indicator of cognitive performance in childhood.
We know that the physical environment has a great importance in learning, but also the emotional climate in which it occurs. For example, already in the Early Childhood Education stage, it has been proven that providing girls and boys with educational experiences in the middle of nature or even allowing them to be in contact with natural elements (integrating flowers, plants, vegetation into learning spaces) etc.), generates more calm, safe and fun emotional climates that improve peer relationships and facilitate learning (Nedovic and Morrisey, 2013). All of this is especially beneficial for disruptive students who find it more difficult to adapt to traditional classrooms. Tasks linked to the school garden,
7. Facilitate play and creativity
The contact with nature fosters good relationships and cooperation because it facilitates play, a critical factor in learning that stimulates, especially in childhood, physical, cognitive and socio-emotional development. Unfortunately, in many cases, its use is limited by favoring supposed tools of early cognitive stimulation that make the child a mere passive observer of a totally decontextualized environment. In addition, natural environments (and the game also, of course, such as simulation or exploration) stimulate curiosity and creativity. According to some authors, nature provides a great variety of “loose pieces” (sticks, stones, mud, water, etc.) that would encourage, through the playful ingredient, a greater exploration of objects, a more creative approach to situations and better problem solving. Although there is a lack of quantitative studies that confirm the benefits of the theory of “loose pieces” in childhood development, what seems clear is that in these situations, children’s play becomes more creative, active and social and this has a positive impact on the cognitive, social and physical development of all girls and boys (Kuoet al ., 2019).
Indeed, we humans have learned in contact with nature, it is in our DNA, and we should continue to do so because that will be the best way to understand and understand each other. As we always say, the most important and natural thing is to learn from, in and for life.
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