Autumn leaves at Westonbirt Arboretum

Three Day Effect: the healing power of nature

Science has finally caught up with the intuitive knowledge of nature-connected outdoorsy folk to prove the positive effect that interacting with nature has on our well-being.

It’s a simple equation with a fairly predictable answer: three days + a good ol’ dose of nature = a mental reboot to a tired, stressed and overworked brain. Result.

We’ve intuitively known this for a long time, but finally science is doing the talking, telling us we only need to interact with nature for three days to reap the mental benefits. Admittedly away from science it can feel like a mere three hours (or even three minutes) outside in a natural environment is enough to recharge your batteries, but sadly “feelings” don’t cut it in the world of science. But now there’s hard evidence from proper scientists, doing proper research, with proper results being published in proper science journals.

“Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost. Such a therapy has been known to philosophers, writers, and laypeople alike: interacting with nature” – Berman, Jonides and Kaplan (University of Michigan, 2008)

But if those science journals are a bit heavy going for this time of day then you can get a coffee-break insight into the research by delving into a fascinating article published in that yellow-bordered Journal of Wonderment, National Geographic. ‘This is Your Brain on Nature’ (January 2016) nods to the “three day effect”, a term coined by David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist who specialises in something that our modern multitasking, technology-obsessed culture struggles with these days: attention.

After taking groups backpacking into the wilderness for between four and six days — sans any devilishly distracting devices — Strayer discovered that the participants performed an impressive 50% better on creative problem-solving tasks. And it was on Day 3 that the magic happened. Or, as Strayer puts it, this is the point that the “cleaning of the mental windshield” occurs.

“When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too” – Florence Williams, National Geographic (January 2016)

The results point towards a winning element in the brain-on-nature experience: the natural environment. But what is less certain are the reasons why spending time interacting with nature is so beneficial to our mental well-being. Is it our interaction with nature? The fresh air? Our disconnection from technology? Or an amalgamation of all factors? According to the National Geographic article some psychologists suggest that it is the visual elements in the natural environment that reduces stress and mental fatigue, such as those epic sunsets and panoramic views, which “allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the ‘nervous irritation’ of city life”.

Whatever the reasons we’re just chuffed that the scientific facts have echoed our own feelings of the positive power of nature on both our mental and physical well-being.

And even better news for time-strapped folk is the cognitive benefits of spending time in the natural world is no longer limited to those fortunate souls who spend extended periods of time outdoors. Let’s raise a glass to three-day weekends spent outdoors in natural environments, away from the digital noise created from our ever-needy electronic devices. All hail the microadventure.

For anybody looking to experience the “three day effect” first hand it would be remiss of us not to slip into the conversation our 4-day Pop-up Slow Adventure walking along the North Devon Coast. The coastal landscape and fresh salty air of North Devon is perfect fodder for recalibrating even the most stubborn of overworked and stressed-out brains. And with intermittent mobile signal and 3G (4G, you ask? Are you havin’ a laugh?) in this wild and remote part of the UK, as an added bonus we’ll slip in a digital detox too. We know, we’re just too good to you.


Slow Adventure Company (slowadventure.co) is an independent travel company that specialises in crafting slow-paced, human-powered adventures in wild, natural places. If you’d like to find out more about our Pop-up Slow Adventures then head over to our adventures page, or sign-up to our newsletter and join our gathering of folk who prefer to unhurriedly explore the great outdoors.