Why Our Brains Need Multi-day Wilderness Trips
By day five of my first rafting trip down the Grand Canyon, time started to slow and protract in a funny way. My senses seemed to sharpen, becoming almost granular. I shed the anxiety I had experienced going into the trip, and instead pondered the immeasurable journey that the sand had taken to reach the beach at my feet, noticed every bend of light as it spilled over the rim each morning and watched with great interest as the smear of stars grew brighter against the night sky.
Each splash of cold river water, ray of hot sun on my skin, scuttle of lizard, conversation with a trip-mate and song of canyon wren seemed so defined. Everything too important to overlook.
I went on to have the trip of a lifetime, coming home, like so many do, with the post river-trip glow, the bliss hangover and the strong desire to go right back.
Turns out, there’s good reason behind the bliss. Duh, you may rightfully respond. River trips are a blast. A time to unplug and unwind, to test your mettle in the rapids, explore side hikes, spend quality time away from devices and gaze into the campfire at the end of the day before sleeping under the stars. Pretty self-explanatory why people love them.
But there’s more to river trips than just fun. There’s also a host of physiological benefits and changes in brain behavior that come with time spent in nature, and specifically when that time lasts several days. We’ve intuitively known this for a long time, but in recent years, researchers have assembled a growing body of evidence on the issue, building a case for why multi-day wilderness trips can be an important part of the toolbox for leading long and healthy lives and giving you all the more reason to make that river trip a mandate.
As the author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative journalist Florence Williams has spent years digging into this subject. She says research shows that immersion in nature can lower our heart rate, reduce the release of stress hormones in the blood and give our prefrontal cortex — which is taxed by daily distractions like emails, texts notifications, shopping lists and deadlines — a much-needed rest.
When we go out into nature, Williams says, “our brains shift in a way that’s really good for our mood and health.”
The results of even short excursions into nature — like taking a walk in a park or sitting next to a river — range from decreased anxiety to improved creativity. And longer multi-day wilderness trips are believed to produce persisting positive changes in attitudes, moods and behavior.
“We seem to be giving our prefrontal cortex a break, so our thinking brain is quieting down and given a rest,” Williams said. “So that can refresh our creativity and allow for mind-wandering. People’s self-concept seems to change too. It’s just this kind of wonderful gift to have that time and space to think about those things.”
When the attention network is freed up, Williams says, other parts of the brain appear to take over, including those associated with sensory perception, empathy and productive day-dreaming. And even more so with longer excursions. Williams noted the so-called “three-day effect,” a term coined by Utah bookseller/river runner Ken Sanders, who realized that after being on the water for three days on a rafting trip, things really started to change. The group dynamic, sense of time, awareness of surroundings and perception all seem to shift.
Sanders relayed his observation to cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer — a leading researcher in nature’s effects on the brain — who had also personally experienced a difference in qualitative thinking after two or three days of disconnecting in the wild. Strayer tested the theory by giving word games to people before and after they went on long backpacking trips, and the results were significant: subjects performed nearly 50 percent better after spending time in wilderness.
Williams also noted that being around water appears to create more alpha waves and is good for our parasympathetic nervous system. And sleeping outside according to natural light patterns helps us reset our circadian rhythm, aiding sleep. Then there’s the awe factor.
“In wilderness, we experience a lot of awe … just experiencing that sense of awe tends to make us feel more connected to the natural world and to each other,” Williams said.
Williams tries to get out on at least one river trip per year, and says she never gets tired of watching how people transform on the river.
“It’s really amazing to watch the transformation happen where you really see people come out of their shells and open up to their sensory environment, socialize more and engage in laughter and good times. And then watching the sense of beauty sort of knock them over.”
So do your brain a favor, and start planning your next river trip now. Your health depends on it.