Growing up surrounded by greenery propagates cognitive function later in life

 In Naturopathic News

Node Smith, ND

Humans have an intimate connection with nature; it is part of the human evolutionary process, to be in contact with the natural world. This is commonly referred to as the biophilia hypothesis, and more and more research is supporting its practical impact on our lives, and especially the lives of our children as they grow up in an increasingly urbanized environment.

Biophilia hypothesis

A new study shows that children who have grown up in homes surrounded by green space generally have larger volumes of white and grey matter in key areas of the brain that impact cognitive function. The research was published in Environmental Health Perspectives by a team from Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), in connection with UCLA. It looked at 253 school aged children from the BREATHE project in Barcelona.

The brains of children were analyzed using 3D MRI, as well as working memory and attention, which were evaluated with computerized tests.

First evaluation of long-term exposure to green spaces and brain structure

The lead authors of the study claim it to be the first evaluation of long-term exposure to green spaces and brain structure. The children’s exposure to green spaces was evaluated using satellite imaging of address location through the child’s life.

The findings showed that increased exposure to nature correlated with an increase in white and grey matter in areas that do overlap with areas that are known to be associated with higher cognitive functioning. An increase in working memory as well as better attentiveness was also observed in those who grew up surrounded by green spaces.

BREATHE project

These results support a previous study, from the same BREATHE project data (of 2,593 children ages 7-10), that showed children who attend schools with more green space had better working memory and less inattentiveness than those who attended schools with less green spaces.

Bond between humans and nature allows for psychological restoration

The growing theory of the biophilia hypothesis is that the bond between humans and nature allows for psychological restoration, as well as prompts opportunities for discovery, risk taking and creativity. In addition, green spaces generally have less noise, pollution, and could increase immune function through microbial inputs from the natural environment. All of these factors contribute to healthier development of the brain.


  1. Glazer KB, Eliot MN, Danilack VA, et al. Residential green space and birth outcomes in a coastal setting. Environ Res. 2018;163:97-107.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Portland, OR and associate editor for NDNR. He has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine among the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend camp-out where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Four years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.

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