The summer sun is slowly making the crawl out from its winter slumber; shorts are getting shorter again; the most blessed of all scholastic recesses is rapidly approaching.
With the warm weather comes so much more sun for activities. Why is it, however, that being outdoors is good for us?
No, not some Avatar-style bonding with the tree spirits, but on a real, grounded, physiological level, why are the outdoors commonly prescribed for rest and relaxation?
While the pleasantness of fresh air, warm sun and fragrant plants could obviously have soothing effects on this biochemistry-worn soul, it goes even deeper – all the way to your wonderful brain.
When we are still being formulated outside of the womb, we endure a wondrous period of what's known a neuroplasticity. This is not a misnomer, as our brains are quite literally malleable to the shaping powers of the stimuli we are surrounded by. Interestingly enough, with the advances of mathematics, came order. With order came order of structure. With order of structure came straight line.
Look at the shape of the newspaper or computer screen you are reading this column on. Look at the horizontal arrangement of the letters. Now look at your walls, and your doors, and your windows, and your posters, and your furniture and your floorboards. Human beings are wonderfully adapt at creating structures out of straight lines. Consequentially, our brains, from a very (very) young age, become programmed to fire systematically upon the presentation of these vertical and horizontally-oriented stimuli.
Additionally, our brains respond the most to change. We crave change – new stimuli, new sounds, new things to see.
Not only does this make sense from a survival stand point (as extraneous data is filtered out so we can focus on life-altering events), but it is also how we are entertained. Do you know why you get bored? It's because you've seen that thing before. It's because we are normalized to the vertical and horizontal stimuli that we see day in and day out – exams, pencils, windshields, menus, roadways, street posts, etc.
So, we have a brain that is tried and true in the realm of straight lines. Now take that brain and put it in the middle of the Appalachian Forest.
The first thing it loves to notice is the lack of straight lines. It's not so good with these stimuli. There's winding kudzu vines and exposed root systems and birds' nests. There's quite an incredible amount of disorder. Suddenly, you're not in your element. You're being cupped in the wild hands of a new environment – and your brain responds accordingly.
Not only do you see things (really see things), but you become hyper-aware of what's surrounding you. It's beautiful, because you are suddenly subconsciously exposed to the world's natural entropy, its disorder, its less-evolved mechanisms of life-sustaining.
It's much more difficult to tune out a world you aren't used to. There's no crunching leaves in your apartment, or weird animal noises, or true, deep, silence.
What people don't truly realize is that order, in terms of physics, is incredibly unnatural, and takes loads of energy to accomplish. It's much more energy-efficient for an organism to die and decompose than to stay put together so neatly. The universe's entropy is actually increasing in response to organisms' order to the point that, in billions of years, our biochemical building could very well end in the heat death of everything in known existence.
Existential end-of-the-universe aside, learn to appreciate simplicity and natural disorder. It's what the modern world was born from, but not something our brains are entirely used to.
If you're looking for true stimulation and entertainment, look for something that mankind did not create. If you're looking for surprise, look somewhere where only surprises exist.
This summer, the mountains are calling you, and now you must go. Just remember to leave them as beautiful as you found them.
Andrew Fleming is a junior in neuroscience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.