Yup, science-based, fact-based magic can be found and experienced in any forest in the world. Anyone who has taken a walk in an autumn forest lately knows it can boost your mood. I love to write about the magic of the power of thought and I back it up with a bit of science to make it real. There are natural, magical forces at work in the forest that are amazing in their complexity if you take a closer look.
There is a certain slant of the sun this time of year that shoots through the leaves and turns them neon and just seeing that beauty begins the magical experience. By seeing that burst of beauty your body reacts by releasing chemical reaction of producing the GABA molecule in the brain. “The Anti-Anxiety Molecule” GABA is an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurons and creates a sense of calmness”, says Christopher Bergland in Psychology Today.
Surrounding yourself with beauty can bolster your creative flow. Thoreau, Nietzsche and many other creative types have claimed that walking gives wings to the imagination. Last year, psychologists gave this empirical support. Walking, either on a treadmill or around Stanford’s leafy campus, bolstered divergent thinking: the free-roaming, idea-generating component of creative thought.
Once you have taken those first few steps and start to feel calmer, you take a deep breath and inhale scents of pine, birch, eucalyptus, grass, water etc. etc. Now, think about it – when you walk into a spa, what is that amazing scent that wafts over you and draws you into the magic? Yup, pine, birch, eucalyptus, water etc. As we walk through a forest the natural aromatherapy of the forest scents cause us to breathe more deeply, “triggering neurons in your brain which tell the body it is time to relax, a new study has found,” Sarah Knapton, Science editor of The Telegraph says. She goes on to explain:
“Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California have identified 175 brain cells which spy on the breath and alter the state of mind accordingly. For thousands of years, yoga students have been taught that controlling their breathing can bring a sense of calm, while it is a well-known truism that taking a few deep breaths can lower rage. But until now nobody knew why it worked. The neurons which link breathing to relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety are located deep in the brainstem.”
After a few minutes of walking your heart rate begins to climb. Oh, the magic of cardio! We all know the benefits of raising our cardio levels but to put it in a nutshell scientifically, recent evidence points to a pleasurable and pain-killing firing of the endocannabinoid system: the psychoactive receptor of cannabis.
One fascinating study randomly assigned a group of 59 men and women to either an aerobics-focused program or a stretching and strength-training program. After 6 months, sophisticated brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that the aerobically fit adults had significantly more activity in the frontal cortex of the brain, the region associated with executive function (planning and long-term memory storage), as well as the parietal cortex, the seat of spatial orientation — two areas often associated with age-related cognitive decline.
While cardio does increase blood flow to the brain, that’s not the whole reason for aerobics’ impressive effects. Instead, the researchers believe that many of the positive changes could be attributed to an increase in BDNF, the “Miracle-Gro” brain hormone. The brain that enjoys cardiovascular training, the researchers say, is “more efficient, plastic, and adaptive, which translates into better learning and performance.” Not too shabby for a daily walk in the woods.
On a typical walk through the forest, you may take music along, run into a friend and visit for a while, sharing a laugh or two and pull out a chocolate/vanilla health bar to share. Oh, the happiness chemicals are surging!!! According to studies from Readers Digest:
- Listening to music you love triggers joy by unleashing feel-good brain chemicals. “The Bliss Molecule” Endocannabinoids are self-produced cannabis that work on the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors of the cannabinoid system.
- Group exercise has some distinct advantages, according to a recent study. Not only will friends spur you on if you’re flagging, but the shared effort may give your endorphin levels an extra boost. Researchers in 2009 found that college crews who rowed in synchronization had an increased rush of these feel-good hormones compared with those who rowed alone.
- Laughter is sometimes described as ‘inner jogging’. Research has shown that it can help to: • Lower blood pressure. • Reduce stress hormones. • Boost immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting cells. • Trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. • Produce a general sense of wellbeing.
- Chocolate-lovers will be delighted to hear that dark chocolate provides protection against heart attacks and strokes. Thanks to its high content of polyphenols and other antioxidants, dark chocolate reduces inflammation, lowers blood pressure, reduces ιbad᾿ LDL cholesterol, boosts ιgood᾿ HDL cholesterol and protects the health of your arteries. It also contains chemicals that prompt the release of endorphins! Add the benefits of vanilla, which helps reduce anxiety, often associated with depression. According to a study at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, patients undergoing MRIs who breathed vanilla-scented air reported 63 percent less anxiety than those who breathed unscented air.
To me, the science of the functioning body is magical. Every second, the delicate dances of balance, growth and decay are performed with precision. A simple walk in a forest can ingite and excite so many bodily chemical reactions, it is boggling. It is a testament to how we are all connected in our delicate dance of life.
Another magical forest experience I took part in was the Oregon Family Forest Fest. Imagine the fun of having 130 young families with around 200 kids age 0-5 camping, playing, singing and dancing on a magical farm complete with moss-draped West Coast cedars and a babbling brook.
Off we went to the Leaping Lamb Farm for 3 days of a festival like no other. The weather was perfect and the babies slept… all good. 🙂 The Family Forest Fest is in its second year and was definitely not a disappointment! Entertainers, movies, speakers, giant bubbles and dress-up parades were some of the highlights.
Finally, I’d like to introduce you to a phenomenon in Korea, called “Salim yok” and “Shinrin-yoku” in Japan or “Forest Bathing”. The practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being. Similar to Finnish traditions, doctors have recognized the numerous health-boosting effects of being in nature. In contemporary times, The Korean Forest Research Institute has found that chemicals from conifers (specifically Torreya Nucifera), phytoncides, are associated with positive health effects. Packaging and proliferating phytoncides in workplaces and elsewhere have been shown to increase productivity. In fact, out of workplace lunchtime has many people seeking forest to walks to rejuvenate themselves over that period.
So friends, I don’t know if it really is magic or science or just a beautiful thing, but what I do know is the forest does have a resonance and power to make us feel better, be younger, smile and be happy.
Take that walk soon and feel it.
Sources and more info:
Finally, I invite you to check out a sneak preview of my new book about finding magic in the forest, “The Adventures of Presley and the Mighty, Noble Knights” PresleyMK
(CLICK on Presley MK)
Thanks for coming along on my journey through the woods. I always like to back up magic with a little science.