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A Hike filled with Color and Sound is Mind Magic
Sure, going on a hike is great exercise. Every step brings you closer to your healthiest body. But did you know, hiking confers brain benefits? What’s more, if you do it right, hiking is magic for your mind. If you’re feeling scattered and your mind is drifting without direction, a properly curated hike can lead you to the right mental path. The color of your hike (green, blue or red) determines whether your mind is laser-focused, receptive and at ease, or imaginative. But beware… the brain benefits evaporate if the sound isn’t right.
Hiking and your brain:
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There’s ample evidence regarding the benefits hiking delivers to the magnificent machinery between your ears. Walking represents the base rhythm, which was programmed into your ancestors’ brains during the millions of years they spent wandering; foraging for sustenance as nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. Getting your body gently bouncing along will make your brain receptive to the natural world around you.
If you’re going to walk, your brain would appreciate pristine surroundings. Researchers from Stanford University, California, recruited sixty participants to take a fifty-minute walk. In the 2014 study, they randomly assigned the participants to stroll through a natural or urban setting. The scientists assessed the participants, before and after the walk, on their emotional state and on how well they could perform tasks requiring short-term memory. They reported that those who walked in nature experienced fewer negative feelings, such as anxiety, and more positive emotions, when compared to the urban walkers. Time spent in the great outdoors also improved performance on memory tasks. The volunteers underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to look at brain activity. The nature walkers demonstrated increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (part of the brain responsible for integrating executive functions (decision making) and emotion).
Hiking and your mind:
The benefits of hiking transcend the three-pound biological machine housed within your skull. If performed properly, hiking also unleashes a burst of magic from your intangible mind. But not just any old walk in the woods will do the trick. Different colors prime your mind to perform better on specific types of tasks. Researchers have utilized fMRI to elucidate color-dependent functional connectivity patterns and brain networks. So, if you really want the benefits to accrue, you need to set the stage properly by choosing color, sound and time.
If you’ve been working on a difficult task and you just haven’t been able to stop your mind from wandering, taking time out for a hike in the midst of greenery may be just what you need to help focus your attention.
A green dominated hike is easily accessible: be it in a nearby park or along the Appalachian Trail. The color reflecting from that myriad of glorious leaves globally increases the functional connectivity (strengthening the circuitry between neurons (nerve cells)) in the left hemisphere of your brain. The left side of the brain dominates language and memory functions in the vast majority of people. What’s more, many consider the left side of the brain more logically oriented, while the right side houses creativity.
Stimulation by the color green also activates a specific brain circuit called the Dorsal Attention Network (DAN). The DAN connects a region of the frontal lobe (part of the brain responsible for executive functions (decision making), with the frontal eye field (part of the brain responsible for awareness and attention to visual stimuli), the intraparietal sulcus (a part of the brain involved with abstract thought (such as mathematics) and determining the intentions of other people) and the visual cortex (part of the brain responsible for sight).
The DAN is responsible for keeping your attention focused on relevant objects, situations or goals. Functional connectivity within the DAN may be weakened or disrupted in a number of ways: for example, acute stress exposure and insomnia may wreak havoc within the DAN. A restorative green hike may get the DAN (and mental focus) back on track.
If you’re feeling nervous, stressed out or scatterbrained, a blue hike may be just what the doctor ordered. Some of the finest places to get an eyeful of blue are experienced by trekking beside the ocean or a vast, pristine lake.
Scientists have determined a splash of color blue fires up the salience network (SN) of the brain. The SN links the front part of the insular cortex (part of the brain responsible for sensory processing, self-awareness, and emotional guidance of social behavior) to the front part of the cingulate cortex.
The SN has been related to the detection and integration of emotional and sensory stimuli (in plain English, the SN makes sure every little bit of information or stimuli that comes into your life doesn’t drive you bonkers). The SN (like the DAN) also provides for enhanced attention to the environment. Additionally, the SN may super-charge your memory. So, get out there for a hike in the great blue yonder and you’ll be buffing up your SN (the proper function of which reduces anxiety and stress and delivers a high octane productivity boost).
If you’re feeling in a funk and your imagination has flown the coop, you may be able to get your creative juices flowing with a red hike. It’s harder to organize a red hike than blue or green. You might get lucky with a crimson sunset or sunrise. Otherwise, plan a hike through a blooming garden, the Dutch countryside in springtime (tulips are magnificent), or a field of cherry blossoms in season.
Exposure to the color red increases functional connectivity throughout the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is a wide network of far-flung neuronal nodes in the neocortex, wired together by white matter (axonal) cables. The main nodes of the DMN are centered in the medial prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain that is involved with decision making and memory consolidation), the posterior cingulate cortex, the parietal lobes (part of the brain that integrates various types of sensory information) and the hippocampus (the part of the brain that forms memories).
The DMN is active in the background of your consciousness and is crucial for inner thoughts such as reminiscing and daydreaming. The DMN fires up the cortical areas associated with memory recall or mind-wandering. It becomes especially active when you think about others. When you plan for future events, the DMN constructs an image of the thing or event (a trip to the beach) and helps weigh the pros and cons of your intended course of action.
So if you’re searching for a ‘Eureka!’ moment, a burst of artistry or a breath of inspiration, you may need to get your DMN back on track. You may find your muse walking by your side along your red hike.
How a colorful hike works:
What’s the mechanism by which color affects the brain? Monochromatic light (think of it as pure color) has particularly powerful effects upon the brain, which reach far beyond the visual cortex (housed in the occipital lobes). The first area of your body to sense color, of course, isn’t in the brain: it resides in the back of your eyes: melanopsin-expressing retinal ganglion cells to be precise. From there, color plucks different neurons (cells) of your brain in much the same way a guitar player might pluck strings. Scientists have determined the activity in the targeted neurons varies with the color of light (e.g. blue, red or green). In other words, different colors fire up different brain regions and activate different brain circuits. The color induced electrochemical signals zip and zap to all three of your brains (yes, you read that right, you have three brains living together in your skull: neocortex, limbic system and reptilian brain. To learn more about the triune brain, please read https://brain2mind.substack.com/p/how-do-you-get-your-3-brains-in-sync ).
Neocortex: Besides the visual cortex (part of your brain responsible for sight), the neocortical area especially stimulated by color is the middle gyrus of the frontal lobe (executive center of the brain). The neocortex is the thinking part of your brain, so it’s the spot that picks your favorite color (don’t pretend you don’t have a favorite color). In 2019, a multinational team of researchers evaluated brain imaging (functional MRI) on a cohort of volunteers. The scientists proved color preference is determined by the precuneus (a part of the brain that allows one to feel in control of one’s actions and events in the external world), the posterior part of the cingulate cortex and the cuneus (part of the brain that processes visual information)
Interestingly, your favorite color determines far more than which socks you pull onto your feet in the morning: color preferences also go a long way to shaping your interactions with and interpretations of the world around you.
Limbic System: The parts of the limbic system (emotional centers) which color effects most are the hippocampus (crucial in the process of consolidating short-term memory and forming long-term memory) and amygdala (part of the brain that regulates emotion).
Reptilian Brain: Color strikes parts of the reptilian brain, too: the thalamus (central relay station of your brain) and the locus ceruleus (part of the brain that responds to stress and panic).
How long does the hike need to be?
To get the full brain benefit of color stimulation, the research suggests the hike should last for more than a little while. Some scientists discovered alterations in brain activity patterns within a few minutes. But most investigators believe a minimum of thirty five minutes is required. For instance, brain activation within the dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex required thirty five minutes of color exposure to be optimized for a working memory tak. There doesn’t seem to be any downside to hiking longer than this. What’s more, the benefits continue to accrue after the hike is completed. For example, researchers discovered continued emotional optimization functions of the anterior cingulate cortex persisted forty minutes after color exposure was terminated.
What you should be listening to while you hike:
Natural sounds tend to be focused yet unfocused. The world’s music is rhythmic yet patternless. Wind whispering through leaves (birds chirping in the distance). Waves breaking on the sand (gulls calling up and down the shore).
Organized sounds (such as a Beethoven sonata) or engaging sounds (such as conversation) activate distinct brain regions. Music may confer its own brain benefits, but may interfere with the cerebral effects of the colorful hike. (If you’d like to learn more about music’s effect on your brain, please read https://brain2mind.substack.com/p/music-and-lamore-go-together-like )
Conversations can be extremely disruptive to the preferred neuron firing pattern in the colorful hike. For instance, in 2013, New York researchers demonstrated the power of conversation in altering brain activity. They explored the neural mechanisms underlying the Cocktail Party Effect. In case you’re wondering, ‘What in the world is that?’: if you’re at a crowded event (so noisy you can barely hear the guy next to you) and someone says your name in a normal voice from across the room, your ears are highly likely to perk up.
The New York scientists studied the brain wave (electroencephalogram (EEG)) patterns of a group of volunteers who required brain electrodes implanted prior to epilepsy surgery. The researchers discovered the cocktail party area to be in the left sided posterior superior temporal cortex (a brain area crucial for language processing and interpretation). Cocktail party neurons monitor the environment so you can keep hitting on the hot chick next to you and still get a heads up when that jerk on the other side of the room starts gossiping about you.
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