Without engaging with natural environments, our brains cease to work well. As the new field of environmental neuroscience proves, exposure to nature isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity

It’s a grey November day; rain gently pocks the surface of the tidal pools. There is not much to see in this East Sussex nature reserve – a few gulls, a little grebe, a solitary wader on the shore – but already my breathing has slowed to the rhythm of the water lapping the shingle, my shoulders have dropped and I feel imbued with a sense of calm.

I’m far from alone in finding the antidote to modern life in nature. “It’s only when I’m outdoors and attentive to the wild things around me that my mind holds still,” says James Gilbert, an ecologist from Northamptonshire. Despite his job, it is not visits to nature reserves boasting rare species that provide what he describes as a “mental reset” – “simply the everyday encounters I chance upon in my daily life. These touches of wildness freshen my mind, broaden my perspective and lift my spirits.”

Such testimonies to the power of nature are nothing new. What is new is the emerging field of environmental neuroscience, which seeks to explore why – and how – our brains are so profoundly affected by being in nature.

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