Renewal Through Nature: America's National Parks and Their Effects on the Mind

Renewal Through Nature: America's National Parks and Their Effects on the Mind
Blog appearing on thinkfun.com.

It was early on a March morning when my mother and I began our trek. Breathing in the chilly, pine-scented air, we set out from our cabin to Mather Point, following the dimly lit trail to the canyon’s south rim. We had set out to see the Grand Canyon National Park sunrise, an experience lauded by many as a memory lasting a lifetime. We were not the only ones who had braved the near-freezing temperatures that morning. Dozens of fellow hikers had gathered to witness the Grand Canyon’s great awakening, bundled up with their cameras ready for action.

We waited a few minutes, and then it began. The black Arizona sky quickly gave way to a misty purple, then suddenly, golden yellow, as the sun peeked over the horizon. As it slowly crept over the rim, the canyon lit up with streaks of dusty red and orange. Patches of snow glistened white on the plateaus, creating a dichotomy of warm and cool colors. My breath was cut short at the sight. Not a word was spoken between my mother and me during this hour of pure majesty. Gazing into this gorge cut into the earth over millions of years, I was made aware of how small I was, and yet still a part of something so resplendent. It was a truly humbling experience.

Many wax poetic on America’s national parks, and it’s not without reason. Wallace Stegner, an American novelist, called the national parks “the best idea we ever had”, and truly, there is no other aspect of our government that inspires such unifying loyalty. This year, the National Park Service celebrates its centennial year. To honor 100 years of stewardship, the National Parks Service has partnered with organizations nationwide to create opportunities for people everywhere to go out and experience these awe-inspiring places. And while it is no secret that these untouched lands are good for the heart, science has proven they’re also good for the mind.

History of the National Parks

The National Park Service is present in all 50 states, with 412 diverse sites. The idea to preserve these pristine landscapes began with the efforts of a small group of people in the mid-1800s. Advocates like naturalist John Muir sought to protect land from the ever-westward expansion of civilization in the United States. Muir argued that nature and wild places were necessary for the soul, and would go on to inspire Teddy Roosevelt, our nation’s “Conservation President”, to increase publicly protected lands in California.

America’s first national park was created in 1872, when Congress established Yellowstone National Park as "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" and placed it "under exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior." Soon after, lands in the West began to fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, with Sequoia, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier National Parks succeeding Yellowstone. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Parks Service as a new federal bureau within the Department of the Interior. This service was charged with ensuring the protection of the national parks for the enjoyment of future generations. Today, the national parks span an area of 84 million acres across the United States. A study conducted by the National Park Foundation valued these public lands at $92 billion, though many would argue the parks are priceless, as their restorative effects on the mind cannot be measured in dollars.

The Brain on Nature

In a 2015 study conducted by Stanford University, researchers were able to quantify the effect natural spaces had on mental health. In the study, half of the participants spent 90 minutes walking in a natural setting, while the other half walked for 90 minutes in an urban setting. Afterwards, activity in the part of the brain associated with depression was measured. Those who spent time in nature showed a decrease in the activity of this particular region, suggesting that the location of the walk had a significant effect in mood. Volunteers were happier and more attentive after strolling through green spaces compared to those who walked through the urban setting.

Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in an urban setting. As people remove themselves from nature, mental health worsens. City dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders, and a 40 percent higher risk for mood disorders as compared to people living in rural areas. And yet, those who live in an urban area but live near a green space can still enjoy lower stress levels. Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School in England analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city-dwellers, and found that those who lived near a green space reported less mental distress. Dutch researchers noted that those who lived near a green space had lower incidences of depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines. Those who benefitted from this natural area lived within a mile of a green space. While it is difficult to pinpoint the specific reason for this overall decrease in stress (Is it the fresh air? The natural colors? The increase in exercise?), it is no stretch to say that nature does the mind good.

Children and Nature

So we know that nature is a powerful de-stressor, and when we are less stressed, we are more focused. This is especially important for the developing minds of children. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found a link between green spaces and the cognitive abilities of children. The study involved 2,623 students in Barcelona, and focused on the amount of greenery found near the children’s homes, around their commutes to school, and around the schools themselves. Children who were near more vegetation showed more progress in working memory and attention over the course of a year. This results could be an important factor in designing future school environments.

Further research has been conducted to find that nature helps a child’s emotional development, reduces the symptoms of ADHD, and improves critical thinking skills. Studies also find that spending time in natural settings makes children and adults alike more caring. With these findings in mind, it is no small thing to spend time with your child outside in a natural setting.

This year, the White House, in partnership with the Federal Land Management agencies, launched the Every Kid in a Park initiative. The goal is to provide an opportunity for fourth graders across the nation to visit federal public lands and waters, and allows free access to the parks for a year. With this initiative, the White house seeks to create new advocates for these protected areas and presents a chance to expose young minds to the power of the national parks.

In 1971, Freeman Tilden, author of Interpreting Our Heritage, was quoted as saying, “"I have always thought of our Service as an institution, more than any other bureau, engaged in a field essentially of morality - the aim of man to rise above himself, and to choose the option of quality rather than material superfluity." The National Parks are the places where people go to feel like they are part of something beautiful and grandiose. In this pursuit of finding oneself, we also restore our bodies and minds through reconnecting with nature. With these findings on the brain and green spaces, hopefully we see the advocacy for the preservation of America’s public lands continue for many years to come.