June 22, 2016
An interesting report notes that when you sleep in a new place, only half your brain gets a good night’s rest.
The left side of the brain stays alert when sleeping in an unfamiliar place for the first night. Researchers found that playing irregular beeping sounds into the right ear (thereby stimulating the left hemisphere) is much more likely to wake up a person than playing the same sounds into the left ear (and stimulating the right hemisphere).
This has been described as a first-night-only phenomenon because it only happens when a person is sleeping in a new place for the first time. Presumably, this behavior of the brain is an evolutionary adaptation that happened in an ancient time when humans sleeping in a new place were at risk of being attacked by predators and needed to be on alert.
June 21, 2016
Walking is tied to a number of health benefits and should (almost) always be encouraged. That is why we created a pedometer app to track steps. However, anecdotally, many of us would agree that walking in a natural environment is generally a more pleasant experience than other walking. From my own experience in walking in cities and towns across four continents and natural environments across five continents, I can relate to Henry David Thoreau who said “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” even though I myself don’t walk four hours a day in any environment, let alone walk in nature for four hours.
Given anecdotal experience with walking in nature, it is interesting to see that medical science can now use data to explain the neurological mechanisms of how walking in nature helps the brain. A Stanford study establishes that cerebral blood flow and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC) is decreased for nature walkers and not for urban walkers. Self-reporting from the walkers also showed that nature walkers ruminated less. I first heard about this study from a column that explains the Stanford study for a wider audience
The sgPFC (or Brodmann Area 25, BA25) plays a major role in depression and decreased neural activity in this area can help prevent depression and combat stress. Since walking in nature helps the brain (specifically the BA25 region) and decreased rumination/brooding helps reduce stress, the results of the Stanford study strongly suggest that walking in nature can change the brain in ways that help mental health, improve mood and reduce the chances of depression.
Clearly, walking in nature is not a viable option for all people in all circumstances. Health conditions, weather conditions or concerns about some wild animals, criminal humans etc. may dissuade some people from walking in nature. However, for those who enjoy walking in nature and for those who’d like to consider it, studies seem to establish that walking in nature can impact the subgenual prefrontal cortex in ways that are good for the brain.