Are you cranky, crabby and depressed? Feeling stupid, stuck, sluggish? Take a walk outside. No matter what the weather. Those of us who enjoy the outdoors have always known that time spent in nature makes us feel better, and some of my best insights into the problems of my day have come during one of my outings. And now new research provides some scientific evidence that explains why.
For many years, researchers have speculated that “outdoor” air is good for us not only because it is free of human-made pollutants, but also it contains specific ions (charged chemical molecules) that affect our moods. Since we evolved in this atmosphere, our nervous systems and endocrine systems (hormones) need it to stay healthy, the reasoning goes. Now new research points to living components of the soil that affect our moods and even increase our ability to learn!
Microbial ecologists study the bacteria and other teeny-tiny organisms living in the natural world. Researchers Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks of The Sage College in Troy, NY have found that exposure to the bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae, a common bacteria found in soil, has helped lab rats learn better and faster. Previous research established that rodents who were injected with this bacteria grew more of the types of neurons that produce serotonin, a brain chemical that not only reduces anxiety, but is also linked to better learning.
Matthews was quoted in Science Daily last May, “We found that mice that were fed live M. vaccae navigated the maze twice as fast and with less demonstrated anxiety behaviors as control mice,” (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100524143416.htm). However, the effect was not permanent; without continued exposure to the bacteria, the mice did not show any difference from mice that were not treated with the bacteria. So we all need to get out and play in the dirt on a regular basis.
Well, if this is true, then I must be one relaxed genius. Most of my free time these days is spent in my gardens – protecting lettuce from frost, cleaning up dead tomato plants, transplanting strawberries, moving shrubs to better locations, planting garlic, trying an overwintering method to grow early spinach – ok, I am somewhat obsessed with gardening. You wouldn’t know it to look at my big veggie garden, it is messy! Teaching classes, advising students, grading papers, raising a family, and life in general don’t leave me as much free time to dig in the dirt as I’d like. But now that I know it makes me smarter, it gives me another excuse to go out there! And it makes me think we REALLY need a campus garden at Franklin Pierce! If you like the idea, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to making you smarter and calmer from breathing in beneficial bacteria and healthy air, gardening brings such a sense of accomplishment, watching huge corn plants grow from tiny seeds, finding 2 ½ foot-long zucchinis that were only orange flowers a week earlier. You never know what you’ll find in the garden…my daughter and I dug up potatoes the other day and found a baby newt, the bright orange terrestrial “eft” phase of the aquatic red-spotted newt. We made a nice temporary home in a plastic aquarium for a week and today, we went to the woods and let it go. I wonder if it felt stupid and depressed from all that time indoors? Living so close to the soil, by now it should be back to its usual zen-eft self!
Catherine Owen Koning,
Pierce Arrow Blogger