COMMENTARY

Get Out There -- It's Good for Your Brain

Michael Merzenich, PhD

Disclosures

October 21, 2022

We humans are almost perfectly designed to commune with nature. We are the most adaptable creatures on the planet, able to successfully operate and survive almost anywhere on Earth. Isn't it unfortunate, then, that the average individual is getting better and better at avoiding nature?

Michael Merzenich, PhD

I ask because we are in my favorite time to be outdoors. I grew up in the country, and this is now the heart of the harvest season, in when I especially appreciate nature and her bounty. There's a reason we call it the "great outdoors."

It's a great time to reconnect with your environment — to get out that door into the garden, forest, mountains, beach, or swamp to remind yourself that everything that you are natively good at evolved to support you as you operate in the natural world.

Our Brains Are Designed to Be Out There

Our brains are designed to support us out there, not in the completely artificial cave we call a home or office. Indoor spaces were designed to pose a less challenging existence in an environment where every footfall is certain, climate is constant, food is available, and security is assured.

In those unnatural environments, we spend hours every day sitting on our keisters, limiting our visual and auditory experiences to what magically appears on a small, flat rectangular surface directly in front of us. Our physical movements are mainly comprised of rapid finger tapping on a screen or keyboard. Those screens are the entryway for each person to experience their own singular world. Meta indeed. Why bother with the real world, when a fake one can be so riveting that we need to get messages from our watches and phones to remind us to stand up every now and then?

Perhaps you've noticed, as I have, that the citizens of the world are not becoming noticeably smarter or nicer. Perhaps you've noticed that lots of people in that meta world are content in their egoistic isolation but are not necessarily very happy companions.

It was interesting to read a recent report from the UK Prince's Trust that concluded that young people who are very heavy users of media are just as happy as the rest of us. They were asked in essence to rate their own happiness. They gave themselves pretty good scores, on par with how the rest of us might rate our happiness.

About a thousand other research questions could have been asked that would better reveal how well youth are living their lives. Ask the administrators, teachers, and psychologists in the average large school district how heavy media users are doing in their middle or high school classes. Perhaps their substantial distance from a more physical and natural life is not so wonderful in everyone's professional opinion.

So, my appeal to you, my dear readers, is to abandon your small screens and those sterile boxes that you live in and get out of that easy chair and take advantage of these glorious harvest months to once again commune with Mother Nature. She's a grand lady, full of delights and surprises.

And, when you are out there in forest and field and in the dirt and rocks and grass and bushes and trees and water, really connect with that outside world. That's exactly what your neurology was designed to do.

Nature as Brain Food

There is a very good reason why native peoples with traditional lives as hunters and gatherers are so much more deeply and emotionally attached to their physical environments than are most of the rest of us. It's a part of them, designed, by their neurologic nature, through their actions, to sustain them. It should be a part of you.

Buddhists use the concept of mindfulness to explain that moment-to-moment concentration of focus that connects us to that world. We are designed by nature to construct a detailed model of our world, and against the background of that model, continually focus and respond to any detail that does not fit. The happy surprise, for the brain, is a positive brain-changing event. It momentarily brightens the spirits. It exercises machinery of the brain that controls our brightness, and our capacity to grow our powers through brain plasticity. Fascination in nature is empowering for new learning. It's enduringly inspiriting. It is brain food.

Nature and Brain Chemistry

I was reminded of these neurologic processes when I read the results last week of another widely cited scientific report, which showed that the levels of serotonin in the brains of depressed individuals were not very different from those in the brains of not-depressed individuals — even though the principal drug used to treat major depressive disorder in most of the world is specifically designed to increase the circulating (blood and brain) levels of serotonin by blocking its natural breakdown in brain tissues. If serotonin levels are about the same whether or not an individual is depressed, how could we possibly account for the fact that roughly two thirds of those who take this drug slowly "come out" of their depression?

It turns out that a little higher level of serotonin in the brain does buoy the spirits enough for many depressed individuals to get out of that chair, out the door, and out into the world, where they are challenged with surprises that all those little screens just don't provide. The production of a second neurotransmitter — noradrenaline — slowly rises in parallel. If you're lucky, that increase in noradrenaline production correspondingly — and, ultimately, enduringly — increases your "brightness" enough so that you can now operate on a more effective scale. Although this is hardly a "cure," it can make an enormous difference in a life, because it brings that individual back into the real world, where surprises abound.

Scientists have shown that individuals with drug treatment–resistant depression can improve just as much by exercising their brains on a computer using tools that engage this surprise-detection machinery in the brain as others improve by taking the best available drug.

Sharpen Your Senses

It turns out there's another way to exercise this machinery in your everyday life. Get yourself out there and look for the fun and surprises in your natural world — as a habit. Be mindful. Really connect. Never pass up an interesting beetle or lizard or stone or flower or tree or bird or fellow human being without trying to understand where they fit into your world. Be continuously engaged and focused — with all of your senses.

Sharpening your senses will sharpen you.

I spend about half of my time outside this time of year. My garden and orchard and tiny vineyard are chock-full of surprises.

Frequent long walks in the city and in city parks and surrounding beaches are another opportunity to connect with our natural mother. I particularly enjoy the mornings and the early evenings, when diurnal creatures are stirring — and the dark, when the nocturnal creatures shyly show up looking for their daily fodder. I'm one of them. I dream that they might be beginning to believe that they are one of me.

Michael Merzenich, PhD, is often credited with discovering lifelong plasticity, with being the first to harness plasticity for human benefit (in his co-invention of the cochlear implant), and for pioneering the field of plasticity-based computerized brain exercise. He is professor emeritus at UCSF and a Kavli Laureate in Neuroscience, and he has been honored by each of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. He may be most widely known for a series of specials on the brain on public television. His current focus is BrainHQ, a brain exercise app.

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