Experiencing Awe: Hiking for Your Head

We already know hiking is good for you. It’s great physical exercise that can combine bursts of intense activity, like scrambling up a steep incline, with the marathon-like slow burn of a full-day trek. But what hikers have known for years is that hiking isn’t just good at making sure your jeans still fit when you get home—it’s also healthy for your head.

Over the last few years, science has finally started looking into the mental benefits of being outdoors. A study in 2012 found that spending time in nature may make it easier for people to enter “a state of introspection and mind wandering.” The study looked at several groups of backpackers and gave them cognitive tests before and during their trips—and found scores increased across the board once people were hiking in the woods.

This builds on earlier research into something called “Attention Restoration Theory,” which essentially says that all those push notifications and text messages and meeting requests screaming for your attention just lead to stress, fatigue, illness, depression and distraction.

Hiking, however, is full of things that inspire “involuntary attention.” You notice natural events like the sound of a babbling brook or the way dappled light illuminates your path. Because these observations don’t demand anything of you, they lead to lowered stress and an increased capacity for creative problem solving. And you can get some of those benefits just by looking at nature photography or by smelling scents from certain plant families like conifers (which is probably why everything in my house that can have a scent smells like a forest).

Most important, though, is new research into the science of awe. Ask any hiker and they’ve had this moment—whether it’s seeing Yosemite Valley for the first time, or looking out onto the Grand Canyon, or even being reminded of the presence of the Milky Way while gazing at the night sky from camp.

Whether you’re awestruck by the azure waters of Crater Lake or simply by watching a family of deer cross your path, the effects are positive and incredibly powerful. In an article in Scientific American, researchers discovered awestruck people actually had their perceptions of time altered, which in turn made them feel less irritable, less rushed and more willing to volunteer their time. Awe helps us feel a stronger bond with others and the world at large—and even “prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else.”

I’m glad science is finally catching up with what John Muir wrote in 1877: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”