… although most self-respecting neuroscientists wouldn’t concede the existence of souls. In contrast, I do believe in souls, but you’d have to press me hard to pin me down on a specific definition of “soul”, beyond something vague like: “the non-corporeal part of us.“
In any case, a group at Stanford in collaboration with a European group asked healthy volunteers to take a 90 minute walk through either an aesthetically pleasing natural scene (the foothills behind Stanford), or a busy urban environment (El Camino Real, which is quite possibly the ugliest street in the western hemisphere). The article in PNAS is available here; the pop science write-up in the Washington Post is available here. Their brains were then scanned using fMRI, and neural activity in regions associated with rumination — a correlate of depression — were assessed. These data were paired with conventional questionnaires to measure the degree of rumination in the subjects. Strikingly, the group ranging around Stanford’s lovely hills scored better on both self-reported levels of rumination and rumination measured by objective brain activity.
In part, this is the sort of science that tells us things we already know. Of course it’s better for your mental health to walk through Stanford’s foothills than along El Camino. But that being said, I think there’s some value in fully appreciating this result. I’ve already spoken in some length about how crucial it is for cancer patients (and people that want to prevent or delay cancer progression) to avoid depression, despair, and anxiety. It’s an actionable insight to realize that a neural mechanism predisposes certain exercise venues to be more beneficial to one’s mental health than others. For my part, I’m going to continue going to the Missouri Botanical Garden (the best part of St. Louis) at every opportunity. The nearby image shows me in front of a lotus plant in the Japanese garden at MoBot. Also, later this autumn, I’m going to take Jing for a trip to Maui (item #6 here) so we can nourish our souls at the very wellspring of natural beauty.