Mental Well-being, Travel & the Brain

The Brain on Wilderness at End of the World

What happens to the brain in nature and the wilderness?

From my window seat, I could see the endless fields of snow-capped mountain peaks receding into the distance. Like velvet ripples on an ice-cream cake. The plane began a giant U-turn as we approached the Beagle Channel to eventually land on an outcrop at the water’s edge. This was the loveliest airport I’d ever seen. It looked like a winter log cabin and I, giddy like my 6-year-old self on the morning of Christmas, filmed the view from the taxi as we made our way into town.

Ushuaia, you cannot go any further South than this. Unless you’re headed for Antarctica (and going by the number of passenger ships, many folks are). They call it “El fin del mundo” – the End of the World – and you won’t forget it because its punted at every opportunity.

Patagonia, El Fin del Mundo
The Beagle Channel at Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina.
A walk to Martial Glacier in Ushuaia.

We stayed in town for about a week, exploring on foot and cycling to the Tierra del Fuego national park (“land of fire”, the name appropriated because of the glimpses of campfire seen by the incoming ships). When you’re this far south, your budget doesn’t accompany you. Prepare to pay a lot, for not very much. For a more rustic (and budget) experience, we headed for a mountain “refugio” called Llanos del Castor, which means “plains of the beaver”. There are beavers in those parts, although we didn’t see any. At Llanos, they have a restaurant serving lamb, hearty stew and craft beer, but their main trade is the dog sled business. We stayed in the log cabin together with the kind-hearted, Hernan, who was in charge of the hounds. Huskies, malamuts and greysters, howling and stinking away in their cages, waiting for winter and their chance to break free. The sound and sight of their raw energy was fascinating and terrifying. A fire crackled constantly in the centre of the cabin and the fridge was a meshed box perched on the outside, accessed like a window. We were happy to exchange some of our creature-comforts for a chance in the wilderness.

Me with at the Llanos del Castor refugio.

The 2015 film, The Reverent, starring Leonardo Dicaprio (a role that incidentally won him his first Oscar) was partially filmed in these remote parts. Patagonia is a place of vast and imposing natural beauty. Between great plains of grassland, whiskey-pleading peat bogs and gnarled mystical forests, the rugged Andean mountains hold glaciers, shimmering lagoons and rivers, milky blue from the icefield sediment which they carry. Descriptions of the landscape fall easily into hyperbole.

The refugio is located very close to Laguna Esmeralda (Emerald Lagoon) and the owners let us use their bicycles to cycle there. A much better option since visiting from town using the tourist bus can be quite pricey (180 ARS), though in truth its very common and fairly safe to hitch a ride. The walk up to the lagoon from the entrance takes about 2 hours. Be prepared for mud and bog and even consider taking some hardy plastic bags to prop your feet in so you can blunder right through the squelch. When we arrived at the lagoon, I remember thinking that it was truly one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen and I felt a curious panic about not being able to capture it on my camera.

Laguna Esmeralda, Ushuaia.
Milky rivers from glacial sediment

Being in the wilderness can have profound effects on one’s mental state. The “biophilia hypothesis” states that our connection to nature is rooted in our DNA. Studies have shown that even when images are presented subliminally, outside of conscious awareness, people still demonstrate preferences for the ones containing imagery of natural scenes, compared to the built environment. Other experiments have shown that people are better able to detect subtle changes in pictures containing living things as apposed to inanimate objects. Our attraction to nature seems to be hard-wired and our extraction from green spaces from childhood to adulthood, a process that mimics industrialisation itself, has left modern humans with “nature withdrawal”.

The therapeutic benefits of being in the wilderness are thus framed as a restorative process.

Home of the beavers

An escape to the outdoors has been shown to improve mood, lower blood pressure, hasten recovery from stress and increase the immune system’s anti-viral cells and anti-cancer proteins. Even the mere site of natural images calms down the body and mind by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Studies using brain imaging suggest that some of the mental benefits of nature have to do with reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain linked to self-focus and rumination, the kind of corrosive thinking that can make you a prisoner in your own mind. When you head to the countryside to “get away from it all”, its not just the city scape that you’re leaving in your wake.

You can read up on many more studies like these in the book, Your Brain On Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, by Eva Selhub and Alan Logan.

Did we feel the effects of being in the wilderness? Yes, I do think so. Being at the refugio initiated a switch in routine and mind set. We had a much-needed break from our screens and didn’t worry about our checking our emails. We did other things, and more mindfully. We stoked the fire and watched the flames. Wandered about the property. We looked at the mountains. Marvelled at the dogs. And we sat on the porch when it rained, wine in hand and cards on table.

A briefyoga session at the Laguna Esmeralda, Argentina.

Here are some tips on how to incorporate some of the beneficial effects of the wilderness into city lives:

  • Keep plants in the home and at your work space.
  • Opt for using fragrances that are derived from natural oils, such as rose oil.
  • Take a walk through a leafy neighbourhood.
  • Owning a pet has been shown to reduce the hormones associated with stress.
  • Spend some time gardening, even if its just a few moments when you get home from work watering the pot plants.
  • Bring fresh, fragrant flowers into the home.
  • On weekends, take a trip out into the countryside for a walk amongst nature.
  • Be mindful about your material belongings. Don’t let your house clutter up with “stuff”.

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