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Thanks for the Memories

Thanks for the Memories

Give it up for the Hippocampus

How do we know things? How do we know each other, ourselves, names of objects and historical events? How do we know where we left our keys or why we came into a room? We know these things because we have a memory of them, of course.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that most, if not all, seniors are concerned about their memory and their general cognitive function as well. Fortunately, we need not be greatly concerned if we can’t remember why we are standing in the middle of the kitchen or where we put our cell phone. This happens to everyone, not just seniors.

It does happen more frequently with seniors than with younger people though. This age-related increase in mild memory impairment is normal. I sometimes laugh at myself when I’m standing in front of an open refrigerator wondering what it was I needed.

In his book Successful Aging, Daniel Levitin shared a joke that is apparently popular with memory researchers:

Two elderly gentlemen are sitting next to each other at a dinner party.

“My wife and I had dinner at a new restaurant last week,” one of the men says.

“Oh, what’s it called?” the other man says.

“Um…I…I can’t remember.” (Thinks. Rubs chin.)

“Hmm…What is the name of that of that flower that you buy on romantic occasions? You know, it usually comes by the dozen, you can get it in different colors, there are thorns on the stem…?”

“Do you mean a rose?”

“Yes, that’s it!” (Leans across the table to where his wife is sitting.)

“Rose, what was the name of that restaurant we went to last week?”


As is true of other parts of our neurological systems, memory has evolved to help us adapt to the demands of the environment. There are several systems accountable for memory, and each is associated with specific anatomical area(s) of the brain. But before we start drilling down into brain parts, let’s look at how memory works and the types of memories we have.

Types of Memory

We have several different memory systems. Spatial memory allows us to know where we are. Procedural memory helps us remember how to perform simple tasks like using a faucet or activating the turn signal on our car. Short-term memory allows us to remember information we learned just a few minutes ago.

According to Levitin our memory systems form a hierarchy. Spatial, procedural, and short-term memory each use different neural circuits in the brain, and each is vital for daily functioning. But above them, at the top of the hierarchy, are implicit memory and explicit memory.

Implicit memory is the type of memory that we use to perform complex behaviors like playing the piano or tennis. Once these behaviors are learned, we do them automatically without having to think about them or consciously reconstruct them.

Explicit memory, on the other hand, includes two types of memory: semantic memory and episodic memory.

Sematic memory is the memory of general knowledge. This memory includes all the things and information we know but don’t remember learning. It’s knowledge we know so well that we take it for granted. For example, what is the capitol of Russia? Moscow, of course. But when did you learn that?

After so many decades spent acquiring knowledge, we older adults have a lot of information stored in sematic memory. According to professor Alan Castel in his book Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging we sometimes have trouble retrieving general knowledge because we have so many semantic memories in our brains that they become cluttered. The sheer volume makes semantic memories harder to find and affects our recall.

Episodic memory, on the other hand, is the memory of all those things we know from particular events or episodes in our lives. Your wedding, the birth of a child, the funeral of a loved one. We remember these events because we were in them. We were there. What differentiates episodic memories from semantic memories is they have autobiographical components to them.

I recall that in 2007 I was a graduate student sitting in a conference room with three professors giving an oral defense of my dissertation. My committee members asked me a series of questions and asked for explanations of various points I made in my research. When they were done, they asked me to leave the room so they could discuss my work. In about 20 minutes they called me back into the room. I sat down at the table. My Chair stood up and extended her had. I took it and she said, “Congratulations, Dr. Lopez.”

I was so happy I almost started crying. Earning my doctorate at 59 years old was one of the seminal moments of my life. I remember every detail about that room and the members – their names, where they were sitting, even the items on the table in front of them. Heck, I even remember what color blouse my Chair wore that day. That is an episodic memory!

One thing we can glean from the example above is that emotion is a key factor in remembering. Even if the emotion is negative. This is true because the area of the brain that facilitates the storage of emotional memories–the amygdala–is active when we store emotional memories and less so when we store semantic memories. Semantic memory events rely more heavily on another area of the brain–the hippocampus.  

The Aging Brain Brain anatomy

One of the things we do well at when it comes to memory is recalling emotional information. This is probably because these memories carry greater importance for us and because emotions activate the amygdala. And the amygdala tends to continue to perform well even as we age.

On the other hand, the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for storing all memories, and general memories in particular, declines in volume by about 1% a year after the age of 50.

The hippocampus is a sort of gate keeper for all memories. Even though our memories are not actually stored there, the hippocampus is responsible for the dissemination of information to various areas of the brain where information is turned into memory.

HM: A Case Study

While researching this article, I dug out an old textbook I used when I taught undergraduate psychology–Foundations of Biopsychology  by Andrew Wickens­–and read the chapter on memory. In his book, Wickens describes a classic case study of a person known only as HM, a study from which we learned a great deal about the role of the hippocampus.

HM was born in 1926. At the age of 9 he had a bicycle accident and injured his head. He began having seizures, which increased in severity over time. By his late twenties, HM had such severe seizures that he could no longer work. After several attempts to correct the problem with toxic levels of medication, his doctor decided it would be helpful to remove his hippocampus. (What were they thinking?)

The operation was a success in that it stopped the seizures, but the side effects were disastrous. HM was no longer able to store information into long-term memory. HM suffered a profound case of anterograde amnesia. (Antero means “in front”.) He had good language skills, a good vocabulary, and above-average IQ. He could remember things from his past, but after the surgery he had only short-term memory. He could not consolidate any new long-term memories. A researcher who worked with HM for 40 years had to reintroduce herself to him every time she came to work with him.

What can we learn from this case? Maintaining the health of the hippocampus, is essential if we are to continue acquiring new long-term memories.

What Can We Do?

Fortunately, there are things we can do to support good brain health and even increase the volume of the hippocampus.

In Successful Aging1, Levitin references a book written by a neurologist Scott Grafton, Physical Intelligence: The Science of How the Body and the Mind Guide Each Other Through Life. Grafton points out that when thinking about brain health, the idea of a brain/body dualism is unproductive. The focus should be on the health of the whole organism not just the brain. You can’t separate the two.

Grafton argues that the single factor with the largest effect on mental health is exercise and physical activity in general. “We now have hundreds of trials with thousands of subjects” that show the benefit of physical activity.

In addition to exercise, Grafton also believes we benefit from “…problem solving, social enrichment, mind body coordination, and fresh air.”

So, should we all run out and buy a treadmill? Well, a treadmill may get oxygenated blood to your brain, but that’s not the whole picture. Yes, Levitin points out, “A systematic meta-analysis showed that for adults with mild cognitive impairment, exercise had a significant beneficial effect on memory.” But what about problem solving, social enrichment, and fresh air?

Okay, how about tennis? I don’t know how to play tennis. So, if I took it up, I would have to learn how to play. That would certainly involve mind-body coordination and problem solving as I dash around the court trying to figure out where the ball is going and how I need to swing the racket to be effective. Since, unlike a treadmill, I would need to find people to play with, I would probably make new friends. I think that would constitute social enrichment. And, unlike a treadmill, I would be outside in the fresh air.

Of course, few of us are likely to take up tennis as we age. So is there a happy medium?

The truth is, you don’t have to buy a treadmill or take up tennis to engage in healthful physical activity. Walking works. Just walk at a pace that moves you out of your comfort range to get your blood flowing.

Ideally, walk on a path in a park or in the wilderness. The constant need to make physical and spatial adjustments while walking on an unpaved surface stimulates the neural circuits in the brain and helps keep your navigational skills and memory systems in shape. The area most stimulated by those adjustments is the all-important hippocampus.

Need evidence? A study was done using a group of seniors that walked for 40 minutes three times a week and comparing them to a group of seniors that did stretching exercises three times a week. The study concluded that the average walking group member’s hippocampus increased in size by about 2% after one year.

So, if you want to stay sharp and slow the inevitable decline of your brain, and hence your memory, the best thing you can do is stay active. Do something that will get oxygen to your brain and require you to keep your brain focused on what you’re doing. And try to do it with other people.

Oh, and just for fun, see how a “memory athlete” can remember the first 10,000 digits of Pi.


Ed Lopez, PhD, Love of Aging’s Science Editor is a retired organizational psychologist, university instructor and researcher. His research has been presented at international conferences and published in a peer reviewed journal. Ed is also a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam. 

So You've Walked On the Moon, What's Next?

So You've Walked On the Moon, What's Next?

Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott reached the pinnacle of his career when he landed on and returned safely from the Moon. He was 39 years old. “My career had been finished,” he later told a reporter "and that's it. Now go find a new career.” There Scott was at 39 asking: What’s next? What do you do after you’ve landed on the Moon?

How many of us after we’ve finished our careers and retired have asked: What’s next?

I was 70 when I retired from a 45-year career that I loved.

Imagine, getting to do what you REALLY, REALLY LOVE. Imagine your job is something which for you is the most important way you could use your life. That’s how my career was for me.

Over the course of 45 years, I got to know and interact at a profound level with over 150,000 people from diverse cultures all over the planet, empowering them to create lives they loved. It was my version of a Moon walk. And then it was finished.

So, I’d Walked on the Moon.

What was next?

I used my newfound time to walk on the beach, read, and study. I discovered a new love–Pilates. I meditated. I spent time with family and friends. Basically, I did whatever I wanted to do.

But below the surface lurked a kind of a disturbing feeling, like an itch I couldn’t quite reach.

One day I got to that itch. It was something I had been saying to myself and had not heard. It went like this: I guess the best part of my life is over. I am never going to be that satisfied, that challenged, and that happy again.

I understood then that the part of my life where I made a real difference, where every day challenged me mentally and physically, and where I got the privilege of making a profound difference for people, was over. Worse, I understood that nothing I was going to do would ever match that life. Cue violins.

But then I saw “nothing I am going to do will ever match the job and the life I loved ” for what it was. I woke up to the reality that it was a lie, not true, in short, an interpretation.

I had been blind to the fact that it was an interpretation and it had cost me.

It had been sucking the life out of me, costing me loving my life, and blocking me from my power in creating what was next.

I took a stand. I refused to keep letting that interpretation guide my actions. I declined to let a circumstance (any circumstance) determine the quality of my life.

Being jolted by the falsity of that interpretation blew open a pathway to my creativity. I had room to create “what’s next”.

Now I have new questions: What is going to leave me being satisfied? Fulfilled? Proud of my life? What am I passionate about? How do I find what’s next? How will I know if I am choosing the “right” what’s next?

On the Path

Let me share with you what has shown up.

Being on the path to “what’s next” took cultivating loving the uncertainty.

I found I needed to defeat the drive to “have to know” and to have to know it NOW. ‘Not knowing’ is the space in which creativity happens.

Discovering for myself requires bravery. It requires that I give up worrying about whether I’m taking the right action, going in the right direction, or wasting time. I won’t analyze myself into paralysis. There are no wrong actions in this game.

Getting into the Game

Getting into and exploring what is next is giving me new openings for action. I know I cannot discover what’s next without getting into the game – I have to pick up the bat and swing. I have to lean into opportunities.

I keep listening for: What touches me? What moves me? What am I passionate about?

And recently, something quite unexpected caught my attention.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I am seeing the real impact the people who govern have on our lives. I found myself being moved by the possibility of shifting political climates and making a difference in people’s lives.

I am in action. I am interviewing accomplished friends who have shaped public policy for years. I’m studying a lot. I’m studying the constitution. I’m studying people who govern as they speak on TV. I’m meeting people who hold office, I’m connecting to groups with visions and purposes similar to mine. I’m sharing.

Act 3

Maybe this is or is not my “what’s next”.

I am all in.

I have come to learn that when I’m walking the path to discover “what’s next” there is no wasted time. All detours bear fruit.

Why? Because in consciously authoring the third act of my life, I am living it now.

Alan Bean (Apollo 12) was another human who walked on the Moon. He continued working with NASA after returning to Earth. Then, after 18 years as an astronaut and 1,671 hours in space, he chose to become a full-time painter.

Bean, who passed away in 2018, said he took up painting because he had been “fortunate enough to visit worlds and see sights no artist’s eye, past or present, had ever viewed firsthand.” He wanted to capture those sights on canvas for all of us.

To me, this contribution is every bit as inspiring as the 31 hours and 31 minutes Bean spent on the lunar surface.

So, I’ve walked on the Moon, what’s next? It’s up to me and no one else.

And I am having the time of my life exploring that path right here on Earth.


Gale Barnum has spent 45 years as a Manager, Coach and a Leader for Landmark Worldwide. She has coached and led programs for 150,000+ people all over the world, empowering them to create and fulfill new breakthrough possibilities for their life and living. She retired from that career in July of 2019 and she is actively engaged in and pursuing "what's next".

For Lack of Imagination

For Lack of Imagination

From age 46 to age 66 I ran my own business, an arty boutique in Santa Monica, CA. The ongoing conversation in my head, and with a few friends and acquaintances and, well okay, with some of my customers, coworkers, and the UPS guy, was that I had no intention of retiring. I would keep working until I couldn’t. Not for lack of money. I realize now that it was for lack of imagination! I couldn’t imagine what I’d do if I retired.

I had to DO SOMETHING after all! I am a doer, and I don’t mean workaholic. I also DO movies, swimming, reading, TV, lunch dates, travel, shopping, museum visits, restaurants, theater, and Dodger baseball – sometimes at the stadium but mostly at home on the couch.

Another reason I couldn’t imagine retiring is that I am driven to be USEFUL. Not only at work, but also to my family and friends and to the organizations I participate with.

Then I closed my beloved store “gioia” (Italian for “joy”). I don’t need to tell you what has been happening to small retail businesses. Even I shop online now, so I can’t blame my customers, right?

Eventually my friend Ann, who I often chat with in the locker room at the Y, suggested I might like doing what she does – volunteering as a docent for school groups at the Getty Center. I was intrigued, and with the museum’s permission, I showed up one morning before they opened to “shadow” Ann.

The school children who visit the Getty are from Title 1 schools, that is to say low-income families. Many have never ever entered a museum.

At one point in our tour with 2nd- graders, Ann asked the students to look for creatures and objects almost hidden in a ceramic Rococo wall clock. They excitedly raised their hands and blurted out “a dragon!” or “a monkey!” I got the picture. I would use MY imagination to enable them to use THEIR imaginations to have FUN looking closely at art. This was for me. 

I’ve been a docent for four years now. I can tell you that kids delight in swaying back and forth like the green stalks of Van Gogh’s Irises. They revel in posing like a 19th-Century marble statue of Athena in full battle mode. And they love climbing to the top level at the back of the museum to see the view of Los Angeles. It is so rewarding to hear “Whoa!” and “Wow!” from these students, most of whom have never seen this view of their city and the ocean. From up there, even the 405 Freeway is fascinating.

I’ve come to love the students, the art, the site, the ongoing art education, and the fantastic community of docents I now belong to. Who knew that all it took was a little imagination to envision myself in a new endeavor? It’s one that I hope to sustain for many years.

After that? Imagine the possibilities.


Laura Owen is a retired entrepreneur and Stanford University graduate in film studies, Laura Owen is currently a Getty docent-in-waiting - that is to say, waiting for the day when the museum will again be welcoming visitors and school groups. Meanwhile, she is enjoying reading, walking and talking with her husband Sandy, Jeopardy, old black-and-white films on TCM, sharing life with friends on Facebook, and  phone calls with her two grown sons. She will be thrilled when Dodger baseball resumes, the YMCA pool reopens, and her local art house theaters go back to screening weird documentaries and vintage Italian movies.


Becoming a Volunteer

Becoming a Volunteer


A Social Quid Pro Quo

About ten years ago I started thinking about retiring. I lived in Mexico and was teaching university students online, having already stepped back from the most active elements of my career working as a consultant for large organizations. A few years later, I moved back to the US and slowly wound down my teaching work. It took me a few years to go from “thinking about it” to making it official, but for the last three years I have been fully retired.

At first it was kind of nice; I had no serious responsibilities. I had no clients to call, no student papers to correct, and no research duties. Life was good…for a couple of months.

However, after catching up on my reading list and binge-watching Game of Thrones, I started to get bored. I started to not have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I would lie there and think about what I had to do that day: Let’s see…coffee, read the local paper (bad news), surf the net (more bad news), and walk my dogs (the high point of my day). I started to wish I had kids and grandkids. Maybe I could offer some sage advice about something or nurture a sick child. Anything to make me feel like I was being of value as I had when I felt my clients and students held me in some regard. I had no real friends nearby so visiting them was out of the question.

I had lived in this state of mind for a few months when I started to realize it was affecting my mental health. I was starting to feel depressed...

Fortunately for me, my wife was beginning to wind down her career and that helped give me some much-needed social interaction. But still, I needed to be needed–like I was when I had a career.

Then one day I stumbled onto an article in the local paper written by someone who was a local “Master Gardener”. I figured if you were a master gardener then you must have a degree in botany or horticulture or something. But I was interested, and a blurb at the end of the newspaper column gave a web address for the organization, so I checked it out.

The first thing that caught my eye on the Master Gardener website was that they had something called the helpdesk. The helpdesk would diagnose your plant problems and give you possible solutions. Cool! The second thing I noticed was that they were looking for volunteers to join their organization. I wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a master gardener, so I inquired.

Long story short: I didn’t spend ten years thinking about this opportunity. I signed up, got interviewed and accepted, went through the formal training (quite extensive), and started doing my volunteer hours. Now, I am one of the people who mans the helpdesk.

Three things of value have come out of my master gardener experience. First, I am learning so much about plants and gardening, always been a casual interest of mine. Second, I have developed a new social network with a variety of interesting people with distinct backgrounds. Third, I am being of service to my community.

If you are a senior, and retired, volunteering is a great way to make friends and serve others in your community. It’s a great way to put some meaning back into your life.

Why Volunteer

Social participation. In a previous blog I discussed the relationship between loneliness and depression. I advocated for developing and maintaining a social network to stave off loneliness. Volunteering is an excellent way to do that and at the same time create the feeling of satisfaction that comes with being of service.

Research has shown that active and productive engagement in society is a key element in successful aging. When seniors increase their levels of social participation, we have a reduced rate of suicide, better physical health, reduced mortality in general, and higher levels of psychological well-being. Research has also shown that volunteering can help prevent depression.

Being of service. Even if your social life is robust, and your primary focus is not on expanding your social network, you can reap the psychological benefits of being of service to individuals and your community. Being a master gardener volunteer, I get to help people solve problems with their plants, develop and deliver library talks on a variety of gardening related topics, and establish a network of new friends in my community.

Another way I volunteer is by writing blogs for Love of Aging that, hopefully, inform seniors of things they can do in their lives that can support their successful aging.

Researchers have looked directly at the health benefits of volunteering as we age. One study concluded that for seniors, volunteering has a negative relationship with mortality; seniors that volunteered had a 44% lower rate of mortality than seniors that did not volunteer.

Another study showed other significant positive results for seniors who volunteered: Older volunteers reported a wide variety of benefits to the people they served, themselves, their families, and communities. More than 30% reported that they were “a great deal better off” because of volunteering, and almost 60% identified a benefit to their families.

Being of service to the community not only helps the members of the community that are being served but also those that are being of service.

Types of Volunteer Service

There are a large variety of volunteering opportunities available to seniors. One way to get our head around them is to organize them into different models. Here is an example of five distinct but overlapping models for understanding the nature of a specific volunteering opportunities:

Formal. These types of opportunities tend to be more formally organized and involve the delivery of services. These roles tend to be more strictly supervised and more highly structured.

  • Volunteering for the library cart in a local metropolitan hospital
  • Delivering meals to older adults through services such as Meals-on-Wheels
  • Providing activities and outing support in an aged care facility
  • Volunteer driver for a service organization
  • Volunteer animal care giver for organizations such as the ASPCA
  • Volunteering in tourism, museums, large charities and emergency services

Informal. Non-formal volunteering occurs in a variety of community settings. This type of volunteering is done in local communities and centers around specific social needs.  Volunteers work in unfunded, less structured settings.

  • Volunteering for a neighborhood group
  • Running the snack bar for a community sporting or recreational group
  • Coordinating the sale of merchandise for a self-help group
  • Volunteering for a specific hobby group
  • Providing services or support through a mutual support group

Governance. Governance volunteers serve on boards and management committees. They provide leadership and direction for the organization.

  • Secretary for the local soccer club
  • President of a service club, such as a local chapter of the Kiwanis
  • Serving on the board of an NGO

Social action. Social action groups are similar to non-formal groups in that people come together around a shared interest but differ in that social action groups have an interest and passion for bringing about defined changes.

  • Volunteering for an environmental group
  • Political lobbying
  • Getting out the vote
  • Volunteering for a community action group
  • Lobbying for change for a specific target group of people or cause

Projects. Project work is for people with specific periods of time available and are seeking out volunteer opportunities with clearly defined timeframes. These opportunities typically involve high levels of volunteer involvement over a short period of time. The idea is that the volunteer has a specific set of skills that can be brought into an organization for a specific project.

  • Volunteering to oversee the plan and construction of a new building
  • Running or assisting at a specific event
  • Redesigning the website for an organization
  • Volunteering to write a marketing plan for a community group

Volunteer Opportunities

Ready to stop thinking about it and volunteer? If you type into your web browser “volunteer opportunities” the search results will be overwhelming. There are thousands of opportunities out there. Here are ten examples from one website I found:

1. Animal Rescue Shelters. Local animal shelters almost always need volunteers. There may be administrative opportunities or working with the animals like dog walking.

2. National Parks. You can help maintain trails, gather scientific information, and even act as a docent.

3. Food Pantries. Food pantries and soup kitchens can always use a helping hand organizing a local food drive, raising money, or simply handing out hot meals to those in need.

4. Habitat for Humanity. Brush up or develop home DIY skills while helping other less fortunate folks find shelter.

5. Local Libraries. Libraries typically need help organizing shelves and assisting patrons, and you may also be of help setting up and running public events, such as author signings and book fairs.

6. Art Museums. Get involved in the community by volunteering for family programs and children’s activities at your local museum. Once you build up your knowledge base, you may qualify to be a tour guide or event planner.

7. Political Campaigns. No politician gets elected without volunteers manning the phones, distributing fliers, raising money, and answering emails. This kind of work can provide you with valuable experience on many levels and can be applied to a host of different industries.

8. YMCA. You can volunteer to help both children and adults, strengthen your leadership skills by coaching a sports team, or pick up some valuable teaching experience by tutoring literacy courses.

9. Retirement Homes and Senior Centers. Offer to give a lecture or teach a class. Offer your services utilizing your set of skills

10. Red Cross. If you don’t feel like giving blood, why not greet and assist customers looking to do so? Your skills may make you a good fit for grant writing, performing clerical tasks, or managing other volunteers. If you’ve got the drive, you can draw on any number of talents to help the Red Cross


Volunteering can make you feel better and actually help you live longer. That’s a big win for the volunteer, but also there is a win for the organizations we support and the individuals we directly assist. Put yourself out there and meet people and support your community. It’s good for you and good for them.


EdLopez 300x300Ed Lopez, PhD, Love of Aging’s Science Editor is a retired organizational psychologist, university instructor and researcher. His research has been presented at international conferences and published in a peer reviewed journal. Ed is also a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam.


The Zen of Gardening

The Zen of Gardening

Science and Beauty From the Garden

The dichotomy of gardening

It has always occurred to me that there is a sort of fundamental dichotomy in gardening. On one hand gardening takes work, energy, perseverance, and money. On the other hand, it is relaxing, fulfilling and provides a sense of accomplishment. I am of an age where spending time on my hands and knees planting spring bulbs is taxing. Carrying bags of compost and potting soil taps into my back and knees. After a day in the garden, I need a hot bath and time to relax my aging muscles.

So, what is it that keeps me coming back and putting more effort into my small plot of land? There is not always an immediate sense of satisfaction. Bulbs takes months to come up and flower. Bare root roses take time to grow and bloom. Of course, there is the ongoing and sometimes time-consuming tasks of controlling weeds and pests. Unless I’m planting a bed of annuals, I’m not likely to get immediate gratification.

Certainly, there is a sense of accomplishment at the end of a day in the garden that can reinforce our hard work behavior. Of course, there is the satisfaction of knowing that in the not too distant future there will be beauty, but I think there is more to it than that. In my career I was a researcher and a teacher. My area of expertise is psychology. Since I have retired, I have more leisure time on my hands so I turned to gardening as a fulfilling pastime. I signed up and went through the Master Gardener training with the University of California Cooperative Extension. I thought I might be able to combine my career knowledge with my developing knowledge of gardening. I started looking at the psychological impact gardening has on us as humans and how we can use gardening as a way to recover from stress, help us heal, relieve our depression, and enhance our sense of wellbeing.

This is your brain on gardening

There are some interesting changes that occur in our brains when we spend time in the garden. In a well-controlled, peer reviewed study that I found quite interesting, experimenters used thirty gardeners to see if gardening resulted in reduced stress and an increased sense of wellbeing. The researchers measured levels of cortisol in the saliva of a group of 30 gardeners (average age of 58) after they were required to take a stress inducing, computer generated test. Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone, and it’s associated with your fight or flight response. It is generated by your adrenal glands and is regulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in your brain. High levels of cortisol are associated with a bunch of unhealthy conditions including: anxiety, depression, headaches, digestion problems, sleeping problems, weight gain and memory and concentration problems.

Immediately after the test they sampled each person’s cortisol at its highest level, then they sent them to participate in one of two activities. Half of the subjects stayed indoors and read books, while the other group went outside and worked in a garden. After 30 minutes of engaging in these activities, the researchers took another sample of each subject’s cortisol level. They found that while both groups had lower levels of cortisol, indicating a recovery from stress, the subjects that worked in the garden had significantly lower levels or cortisol in their saliva than did the subjects that read. Also, the subjects from the gardening group reported a greater sense of wellbeing than did the book reading group.

This study shows one of the many values of gardening. We can use our time in the garden to help us recover from stressful events and experience a sense of wellbeing.

Healing effects of gardening

Over the past few decades there has been an important movement toward using gardens for therapeutic and rehabilitative purposes. Having a background in clinical psychology, I was fascinated when I discovered the field of horticultural therapy. This is an area within clinical psychology that uses gardens as an intervention for therapeutic and rehabilitative purposes. Gardens have been shown to both improve the social psychological and physical wellbeing of older adults and help us overcome the depression that is sometimes associated with aging.

The healing powers of gardens and nature in general, have also been shown to have a positive effect on people recovering from injury. A group of researchers followed 46 post-surgical patients that were assigned to one of two groups. Half of the patients recovered in rooms that had window views that faced a brick wall and the other half of the group had windows that faced a small stand of deciduous trees. The group that had the view of the trees spent less postoperative time in the hospital, received fewer negative evaluations from the nursing staff, and took fewer strong pain medications than did the patients who viewed the brick wall from their room.

Research has also shown that exposure to natural settings can make people feel better when compared to people exposed to urban scenes that lack natural elements. Compared to the urban scenes, people exposed to nature scenes had an increase in positive affect including feelings of affection, friendliness, playfulness, and elation.

We can see the profound importance of gardens when we look back in history. The Koran and the Bible both refer to the garden of Eden as being the wellspring of humankind; an idyllic world of peace and harmony. In the Persian culture the idea of a garden of paradise goes back 6000 years. Even the Neanderthals valued the beauty and serenity of flowers. In graves dated back as far as 60,000 years ago, there was evidence of cornflowers, hyacinth, and yarrow being placed around bodies at burial.

Gardens can heal body and spirit and have subtle yet profound effects on us as we age and our lifestyles change. When we move away from the challenges of a fulltime career and toward a more leisurely life, retirees long for leisure activities that offer the possibility of engagement, self-fulfillment, and satisfaction. Gardening is one such activity. We can improve our mood and sense of well-being through the power of beauty in nature.

Carol Cumes, in her book Chakra Gardens, describes our wholistic relationship to gardens:

In the Andes mother earth is referred to as Pachamama. Throughout the world, healers, shamans and sages hear Pachamama’s cry to restore the planet to balance. ‘First heal the world, by healing yourself,’ She whispers, while extending an invitation to mankind to return to Her gardens. Go where nature draws you. Breath in the energies. Inhale the fragrant perfumes. Listen deeply, with your eyes closed, as Pachamama works with you to provide all you need.

There is much made in the literature about Zen gardens–gardens specifically designed to give us a sense of wellbeing and to focus our healing energies. I, however, think that we do not need a specifically designed garden to give us peace of mind, a sense of wellbeing, and soothing comfort from the stress of day-to-day life. Being in any garden, being with the beauty of nature, and touching, feeling, and smelling all that the garden holds will heal us. Even if you don’t have a yard, you can make your own garden space with a potted plant in a window or for that matter you can build your own Zen garden in the smallest of spaces. The important thing is to be with the beauty of nature and allow it to restore us.

EdLopezEd Lopez, PhD, Love of Aging’s Science Editor is a retired organizational psychologist, university instructor and researcher. His research has been presented at international conferences and published in a peer reviewed journal. Ed is also a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam.


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