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Forum probes link between forests and brain health

NORFOLK —The next time someone suggests you go take a hike, you may want to heed the advice. Research reveals that connecting with nature, particularly forests, can be beneficial to your brain.

“Science shows that placing one foot in front of the other leads to some seriously impressive mental and physical benefits,” Susan Masino, professor of Applied Science at Trinity College, told attendees at a talk at the Norolk Library (and online) Saturday, March 5, sponsored by Great Mountain Forest as part of its winter lecture series.

About 30 people attended in person and 22 watched online.

(Great Mountain Forest has more than 6,000 acres of contiguous forest in the towns of Norfolk and Falls Village.)

Walking outdoors, for example, is one of the most underrated forms of exercise, Masino said. “We need nature. This is not optional.”

During the talk, Masino, a neuroscientist and forest researcher, explored the relationship between forests and brain health. She emphasized the benefits of natural ecosystems, ranging from medicines to minds, and with special opportunities for veterans, adolescents and people dealing with mental health disorders.

According to Masino, anxiety, depression and stress are associated with mental health issues that can distort how we reflect on ourselves and our surroundings. Such disorders, she said, are not confined to age, race, gender or socioeconomic factors.

“There is a mental health crisis in this country. People are very anxious about a lot of things and it’s important to feel that we can figure this out together,” she said. “Linking forests and brain health is advancing rapidly as a research topic. There is no one this doesn’t benefit.”

Thoreau, Darwin

Masino pointed to some famous people who, throughout history, have recognized the restorative values of nature, including Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect, author and conservationist who was famous for co-designing many well-known urban parks with his partner Calvert Vaux; Henry David Thoreau, a well-known advocate of transcendentalist best known for his book “Walden,” a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings; and the English naturalist Charles Darwin.

Masino said Olmsted was a staunch believer that nature engages yet relaxes the mind.

“He felt that everyone deserves access to nature,” thus his quest to design public parks. “He felt these places were democratic spaces that allow meandering and organic interactions to happen and provide a profound and effective antidote to the stress of urbanization.”

The healing power of awe

Exposure to nature has been shown to lower PTSD in veterans and at-risk teens, Masino said, referring to data from a walk through a forest with a group of Trinity students, who were outfitted with heart rate monitors.

“Peak coherence occurred when we transitioned to walking through the forest. Coherence increased in time spent in the forest and decreased after exiting and entering a more urban environment,” said the researcher,

Forests, she continued, have natural healing powers, including the antibiotic properties present in forest soil and antiviral plant compounds such as aromatic terpenes, which are found in many plants and are especially abundant in conifers. “I can’t overemphasize how important this is,” she said of the research.

Global approach crucial

Masino said a global approach is crucial to addressing global crises and protecting brain health. More than 200 health journals call on world leaders to address “catastrophic harm to health” from climate change, said the neuroscientist. “Wealthy nations must do much more, much faster.”

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