Nature is necessary: The secret to a healthy life in the city is living near a park, according to research on the effects of stress on the brain
12/12/2017 // David Williams // Views

Many people view their eventual "escape from the rat race" as a worthy mission to keep them pressing on through every single day. For city dwellers in particular, it's a kind of prize to keep their eyes on.

But once that's over, what's next? If you take the evidence and conclusion of a recent study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, you may be inclined to believe that it would benefit you greatly to leave the city entirely in favor of the country.

According to the findings of the study, there is a direct correlation between brain health and the availability of nature near the home. That is, where you live and what's around you has a clear and observable impact on certain areas of your brain. And that, in turn, could be a measure of your overall health.

Perils of city living

While it has its benefits, living in the city can have some negative effects on your well-being. The main reason for this is that you are exposing yourself to things like noise, air pollution and overcrowding. As a matter of fact, it's not uncommon to experience one or all of these at the same time if you live in the city.

There are studies that show that there is a higher risk of psychiatric issues like depression, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders in city dwellers when compared to those who live in the country. Apparently, some of the negative aspects of living in highly modernized environments can lead to a worse state of the brain's amygdala, which affects how the brain processes stress and reacts to danger.

To find out exactly what factors can affect and possibly cause or prevent these things, a team of researchers led by psychologist Simone Kühn conducted a full study. Mainly, they were trying to find out what the effects of nature near people's homes were, and if things like forests, urban greens or wastelands had any profound effect on stress-processing regions of the brain like the amygdala.


Since there are previous studies that support the theory that a person's environment can affect brain structure and function, the researchers set to find out if certain environmental conditions could have a positive effect on brain development, particularly for city dwellers.

Residence and brain health

The study concluded that there is a clear relationship between one's place of residence and the health of one's brain. City dwellers who live closer to a forest were found to be "more likely to show indications of a physiologically healthy amygdala structure" and presumably able to cope with their stress levels much better. Even when controlled for other factors, the study found the effect to remain stable all throughout.

It wasn't possible for the researchers to find a link between the examined brain regions and water, urban green or wasteland. So the results were not exactly as clear cut as the researchers wanted them to be. However, they concluded that, based on current knowledge, it was more likely that city dwellers who live close to a forest had healthier amygdalas, instead of the other way around.

"Our study investigates the connection between urban planning features and brain health for the first time," says Ulman Lindenberger, co-author of the study and Director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. The significance of this study and its results to urban planning pertains mainly to how cities of the future can be designed to better accommodate the mental health needs of those who will be living in them.

In the meantime, the experts will continue to do their research, probably hoping that they don't miss the forest for the trees.

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