08/29/2013 12:30 EDT | Updated 10/29/2013 05:12 EDT

The Science Behind Mountain Climbing

For many hikers the environment above the tree line offers the most poignant mountain experience. This is where the feel-good factor kicks in and multiplies. If you are someone who feels better the higher you go, you may have wondered why. Part of the impact is psychological. Mountains are intensely symbolic in almost all world religions and play a large role in western culture; but one example is Dante's Divine Comedy where the mountain ascent is a journey through seven levels of wisdom and purgatory to become a better, wiser person. The symbolism mountains are laden with is embedded in our minds, influencing us. But that's not all...

Researchers are discovering reasons why people feel better up high in mountains. The research is based on a study of 'Attention Restoration Theory' and is not a study of mountains, but the findings are directly relevant. 'Attention Restoration Theory' or ART represents a body of research delineating two types of attention: directed and involuntary. Our directed attention is used when working on a computer for example. It is best recharged through involuntary attention. Natural settings are particularly good for stimulating involuntary attention. Beautiful natural settings are even better because they catch your attention involuntarily.

Mountains enter the picture because different types of natural environments are particularly effective for ART and well-being. Gatersleben and Andrews in 2013 have shown humans need 'high levels of prospect and low levels of refuge' to feel good. This means unobstructed ability to see into the distance -- the further the better -- with little shrubbery or trees offering refuge or concealing an unknown threat. This is restorative for attentiveness and well-being. The more expanse seen, with the least level of refuge, the more restorative the experience. Mountains above the tree line are ideal with minimal vegetation, offering a breathtaking vantage point with a vast unobstructed view. Moreover, Gatersleben and Andrews discovered that this type of environment causes emotions of sadness to dramatically decrease, and anger to substantially diminish. However, in 'low prospect high refuge' environments like dense forest, anger was found to increase and sadness did not decrease. Further, the ability to concentrate increased substantially in 'high level of prospect and low level of refuge' compared to other landscapes, suggesting high altitude mountains are an ideal learning location. The study also states that experiencing awe evokes deeper thoughts and reflections, as most mountain hikers know. Combine the findings of this study with two or more millenia of symbolic imagery working unconsciously upon us, and we can understand why ascending a mountain is a powerful experience.

Added to advantages of altitude is the actual ascent. The mind-body benefits of walking are well known, but the unique aspects of walking up mountains are unpublicized. Ascending an almost perpendicular mountain is possibly the only outdoor sport stimulating heart and lungs to extreme, while the body moves calmly, almost meditatively. If the ascent is without pause the very deep breathing becomes similar to yoga (breathing through the nose to keep the mouth moist to avoid drinking water excessively). Italian mountain people claim the rhythm of the footstep over hours creates its own momentum making a hypnotic drum-like beating on the ground. In the Sibillini Mountains this way of walking is the "passo Montanario" or the 'Mountain person's step' which is slow, studiously observant and constant.

Does any other 'sport' vigorously stimulate the body, the mind, and emotions while moving carefully, meditatively in nature? Mountains offer utterly unique solutions for health, for learning and being restored.