Have you ever wondered what exactly happens to your brain when you step into the garden? Because it’s pretty amazing.
We love gardening as part of a healthy routine, but its benefits extend way beyond just being an enjoyable way to pass the time. Spending time in your garden actually alters your brain chemistry, boosts your immune system, and breaks unhealthy cycles of negative thinking. In fact, even walking among and observing nature can change the way your body functions, lowering blood pressure, decreasing heart rate, and changing your cortisol levels.
So what happens in your brain and body when you choose to put them in a garden? Discover the multiple scientific miracles taking place each time you do.
The Amazing Power of Soil
Remember how fun it used to be to make mud pies as a child? There’s actually a reason for that, and it has everything to do with dirt.
“Just playing with soil for five minutes,” says Dr. Ming Kuo, professor of psychology at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, “we can actually see your parasympathetic nervous system activation change from flight-or-flight, moving towards tend-and-befriend.”
While the science behind soil is multifaceted and complex, one of the reasons it is so beneficial can only be seen on a microscopic level. Scientists have discovered a microbacterium called microbacterium vaccae in soil, which, when it comes in contact with human skin, can increase the levels of serotonin in the brain and improve overall brain function.
The Importance of Awe
Awe is described as the feeling of wonder and mystery that comes from encountering vast parts of nature. When we experience awe, our brains spend less time in what is known as the default mode network, a system that is activated when our minds wander or we are thinking about ourselves. Breaking away from DMN helps us to think outside of ourselves, instead of making us feel more connected to the larger world and, in some cases, facilitating transcendence.
Since most of us can’t run off to Niagara Falls at a moment’s notice, it’s important that we find ways to experience awe as much as we can at home. This is where gardening comes in.
In order to experience awe, Dr. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, advises that we “take a moment to study leaves and flowers and plants.” He says that it connects us back to a time when humans felt awe more regularly because of their connection to the earth. “Thousands of years ago, we lived with nature. We became these scientists of nature. We realized all the ecosystems and the complex processes…[your mind realizes that it’s] bigger, that it’s part of this expanse.”
The “Happy Chemical”
Serotonin is known as the “happy chemical,” due to the feelings of joy and satisfaction we experience when it’s released in the brain. When you get into the garden, the production of serotonin increases due to a variety of factors.
Aside from just the microbacterium vaccae in the soil, serotonin is released when we participate in physical activity, a vital part of gardening. We also see increased levels of the chemical due to the vitamin D we get from sunshine.
One of the greatest boosts of serotonin comes from the gratitude we feel when in the garden. Dr. Madhukar Trivdei, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern, has found that when we feel gratitude, serotonin is circulated throughout our brain and, when practiced over time, can transform the way our neurons are connected.
“With a bit of positive psychology or positive thoughts, you can actually change the way your brain is wired,” he explains. “The same research [on gratitude] talks about the act of gardening rewires your brain. All conduits or platforms to help with anxiety and depression and overall mental health …are important.”
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness has been a hot topic in the field of psychology for decades but has really started entering the lexicon in the past several years. And for good reason–when you practice mindfulness over time, anxiety and depression are decreased, immune function is boosted, mental clarity and focus are increased and the brain is better equipped to fight aging.
Due to the sense of awe created when we step into them, our gardens are amazing places for mindfulness. This is especially true when we treat each minute spent in our gardens as a time for peace and meditation. You can capitalize on the benefits of mindfulness by following this beautiful meditative practice when starting and visiting your garden.
The brain benefits of gardening are irrefutable. The best part: you don’t even need a large space to reap them. If you’re ready to start a garden but are working with a small outdoor area, try one of our easy-to-use container garden kits.