This is Your Brain on Fresh Air

If you thought it was good to go outside to get some fresh air, there may be more to it than that.

A new study claims that going outdoors actually changes the way your brain works, and not necessarily in a good way.  According to Kyle Mathewson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alberta in Canada and the lead author of new research published in the journal Brain Research, “Your brain seems like it has to work harder and it’s less effective when it’s outside.”

Mathewson’s study monitored the brain activity of 12 people as they listened to a series of tones.  The subjects were directed to press a button when they heard one of two sounds.  There were two trials — sitting in a dim, quiet lab and riding a bicycle along a street outside.  The objective was to see how brain function is changed by environment and an outdoor activity like bike riding.

Somewhat surprisingly, people’s brains didn’t respond on-task as well while outside, perhaps because there were more distractions.  More scientifically, a type of brain wave seen while at rest pretty much disappeared outside where “there are traffic sounds, and the sights of traffic, and all these people around you, and trees and birds and the wind and the cold,” Mathewson says.  “All these extra sensations are kind of competing with the task that you’re doing,” forcing the brain to work harder to achieve the same result.

Although the bike riding itself doesn’t seem to make a big difference on brain activity.  In a prior experiment, people rode a stationary bike indoors, which didn’t differ much from when people sat quietly in a lab.  And it isn’t just fresh air; in a follow-up experiment with recorded traffic sounds indoors, brain activity was also reduced.

Of course, much more research is needed.  This was a very small sample size.  Would the results differ among different outdoor environments?  What if the tasks were more difficult?  Is reduced brain activity a net positive or negative?   Past research has shown mental health benefits associated with spending time in nature.  “Going outside in this case might have appeared bad because we went outside beside busy traffic,” Mathewson says, “but if we went outside into nature, we might have found different effects.”

As for me, I’ll still take my chances outdoors.

The complete article is “Being Outdoors May Change the Way Your Brain Works, Study Says” by Jamie Ducharme and can be found at .


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