Nature Is So Good For The Brain

When we go out into nature, Williams says, “our brains shift in a way that’s really good for our mood and health.”

Normally it takes several days to get in the right space.

First there is the rigging (boater talk for getting all the equipment sorted and packed for a multi-day river trip). Followed by the last-minute packing the night before. A little bit of stress making sure that all is accounted for.

Have we got everything? Another look at the check sheets. Was that extra coffee packed? Must remember to get the frozen goods out of the freezer first thing in the morning.

It’s all on the trailer and in the van. We’re off to the put in point – and on time! While time becomes increasingly irrelevant for guests on a multi-day river trip, for a guide it is still there. Getting to camp in good time, cleaning up dinner dishes before it gets too dark.

A Core of Excitement

I always feel, deep inside myself, a core of excitement on that drive to the put in point, and the ensuing loading of the rafts. This feeling is with me no matter how many times I may guide a multi-day river trip.

One final shove and the boat is on the water. The current catches us and off downstream we go. Our journey has begun.

How do I feel now? That odd feeling of stressful excitement dissipates quickly. Instead for me, it is replaced with a sense of relief, of bliss, of wonder.

Like a Child

So quickly the pace of life slows down. As I float along I look for the source of bird calls, I marvel at waterfalls both large and small. My mind struggles to understand how the movements of the earth’s crust have shaped the rock formations. Like a child, I am overwhelmed with a sense of wonder and conversely, serenity.

This feeling of bliss (felt except when I am at the top of a major rapid!) can last for several days after the trip.

And it is not just me who feels this.

So Why Do I and Others Feel This Way?

This feeling we have of bliss is engendered by so much more than no phones, no meetings, no deadlines and no traffic.

There is also so much more to it than being able to stare into camp fires, or feeling some excitement in running rapids, or just simply switching off from devices.

There is now a considerable body of research that highlights the benefits and changes in brain behaviour when we spend time in nature. There is growing evidence that spending this time can help us lead longer and healthier lives.

Research summarised by Florence Williams in her book “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, and More Creative” reveals that immersion in nature can lower our heart beats, reduce levels of stress hormones in the blood and give the pre frontal cortex of our brain a rest.

This part of our brain deals with the multitude of daily distractions such as emails, texts, deadlines and so on.

When we go out into nature, Williams says, “our brains shift in a way that’s really good for our mood and health.”

“We seem to be giving our prefrontal cortex a break, so our thinking brain is quieting down and given a rest,” Williams said. “This allows us to refresh our creativity and allows for mind-wandering. People’s self-concept seems to change too. It’s just this kind of wonderful gift to have that time and space to think about those things.”

She goes on to say that when we free up our attention network other parts of the brain take over. These include those associated with sensory perception, empathy and day dreaming. These are all heightened by the longer the experience is.

The Three day Effect

Many multi day guides call this the three day effect. Guests really start to exhibit different dynamics after this time. Greater empathy with nature and each other, a different sense of time and greater awareness of surroundings.

Research also revealed that being around water appears to create more alpha waves and is good for our parasympathetic nervous system. And sleeping outside according to natural light patterns helps us reset our circadian rhythm, aiding sleep.

And then again, there is that sense of wonder. The waterfalls, the geology, the plants, birds and animals all tend to make us feel more connected to nature and to each other.

Now I Understand How I Feel The Way I Do

So there is a reason for the feel good factor you experience on multi day trips.

Maybe it is time to give your brain a real holiday. A multi-day river trip, and preferably one 3 days or longer, might be the perfect option.


Brian Megaw

Immerse yourself in nature on a Rangitikei River multi-day rafting trip