Scientists of the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf have found that living near an abundance of trees reduces stress by strengthening an area of the brain that controls emotional processing, known as the amygdala.
The amygdala is an area of gray matter in the brain which processes memory, emotional reactions, decision-making, and survival instincts. It also plays a role in sexual activity and libido or sex drive in humans. It is vital for processing anxiety, and was found to be more robust in the people involved in the study than those living close to open green spaces, wasteland, or rivers in urban areas.
According to lead study author Dr Simone Kuhn: “Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption the environment can shape brain structure and function. That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development.”
Some illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia are more prevalent in city-dwellers who are constantly exposed to noise, pollution and a high number of people in already-crowded small spaces. These factors contribute to deterioration of mental health and overall quality of life.
A recent ranking by ZipJet lists the least and most stressful cities of 2017:
“Studies of people in the countryside have already shown living close to nature is good for their mental health and well-being. We therefore decided to examine city dwellers,” said Kuhn.
Co-author Ulman Lindenberger, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, said: “Our study investigates the connection between urban planning features and brain health for the first time.”
In the study, 341 adults, aged between 61 to 82, were asked to complete memory and reasoning tests and undergo brain scans. The data was then combined with information about the kind of environment in which the participants have been living.
The findings show that city-dwellers who lived close to the edge of a forest were more likely able to cope with stress better due to their amygdala showing overall physiological health. Other factors such as education and income levels have been determined to have no significant effect on the results. (Related: Living Near Trees Improves Physical, Mental and Social Health.)
The researchers said the study needs to be confirmed with further investigation in other cities.
The study was published in Science Reports.