I was listening to a CBC documentary on The Current called Urban by Nature. It is about the beneficial effects of nature on the brain. In a search for scientific explanations for my outside-the-box methods of coaching weight loss, this one struck a cord.
Jonah Leher, neuroscientist and author, describes the prefrontal cortex as the executive center of the brain that controls focused attention, decision-making, analytical thinking and goal setting. It is also the seat of self-control and inhibition. This self-control piece is one to note if you have a tendency to overeat or overindulge in alcohol or any other substance.
In addition to its executive function and self-control elements, the prefrontal cortex is the place in the brain where all of the senses come together to be interpreted into action.
It seems that the sensory overload that comes from being in the city takes up so much processing power in the prefrontal cortex that we have little left over for self-control. We might set the goal to lose weight and get healthy but we need more prefrontal cortex power for the self-control piece that allows us to follow through on those goals. If our senses are constantly bombarded by the normal activity of city life, added onto the stresses of work, family, and everything else, there just isn’t enough to tackle self-control too.
It is in our biological nature to seek out pleasure and in the brain this translates into stimulation of the pleasure centers and an increase in the endorphins, the feel good neurochemicals. In a time of stress, when the prefrontal cortex is overloaded and self-control is at its lowest, we turn to the quick fix that will give us a rush of those endorphins. Comfort foods and alcohol do just that. However, the spike in feel-good is short lasting and the consequences are longer lasting. So we need other outlets to replace the food and drink. It will come as no surprise to those of us who are nature lovers, that trees and greenery can do just that.
It seems that in a region of the brain, the parahippocampal cortex, our evolutionary connection with nature is remembered when we view the beauty of a natural landscape. This part of the brain, rich in endorphins receptors, is closely linked to one of our pleasure centers. It is triggered by the presence of nature and it helps us handle stress, anger, and anxiety.
So add ‘time spent in nature’ to your arsenal of weight loss tools. According to research at the Institute of Landscape and Human Health at the University of Illinois even staring out the window at greenery can make a difference. Having said that, the more time spent with a wider variety of natural elements, the more prefrontal restoration and the more self-control you are likely to have.