The Effects of the Environment on the Brain

Michaela Anderson


Understanding how your environment plays a crucial role in your everyday thought processes, as well as your ability to learn is extremely important. By understanding how your environment effects your thinking, retention levels, mood, and other aspects you can manipulate your environment to be best suited for you. In college many students are thrown into the world for the first time to take care of themselves, by adjusting their environment they are able to create a learning and living space best suited for them.


  1. Environment
    1. Physical Environment
    2. Biotic Environment
    3. Social Environment
  2. Everyday Environment/College Transition
    1. Location and Memory
    2. Color and Learning
    3. Seasons and the Mind
    4. First Year of College and Academic Performance
  3. Tips to Help Students
  4. Activity
  5. Sources

1. What is the environment?
Environment is defined as the surroundings or conditions a person, animal, or plant lives in or operates within. There are three main types of environment: physical, biotic, and social.

Physical environment is the part of the human environment that includes purely physical factors such as soil, climate, and water supply.
Biotic environment is the part of the ecosystem involving plants and animals.
Social environment is the immediate physical and social surroundings in which a person lives or in which something happens or develops. This includes culture, and the people by which a person is surrounded by.

Location and Memory

By changing your surrounding you can better your level of retention. A study conducted in 1978 showed that college students had a higher level of retention by studying 40 vocabulary words in two different locations than in the same location twice. By changing your environmental surroundings you are better able to force the brain to make many connections with what you are studying. This slows down the rate of forgetting. More recent studies have been conducted and all confirm the theory that changing your environmental surroundings will aid in the level of retention.

Color and Learning
Though it may sound far fetched the color of your surrounding when you learn can also help in retention levels, as well as altering your mood. Color within a learning environment improves visual processing, helps to reduce stress, and challenges brain development through visual stimulation and relationships, along with pattern seeking. By having visual stimulation, such as color, the brain rewires and makes stronger connections. In addition visual stimulation helps promote visual thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Introducing color into a classroom can help to promote feelings of relaxation and refreshing environment. The color of the environment and how they affect the mind extend beyond the classroom. The color orange for instance helps to increase enthusiasm and creativity. Pink is said to calm people, which is why the University of Iowa painted their opponents locker room pink, along with all pink accessories (lockers, toilets, and showers.) One can see how something as simple as even the color of the environment they are in can affect the mind.

Seasonal Changes and the Mind
As the seasons change most people feel some sort of change. For approximately twenty percent of the US population the seasonal change is more than just that for them. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression that occurs at the same time every year. The most common form starts in the fall and lasts through winter. People affected lose energy and become moody. The rarer form begins in late spring and goes into summer. Light therapy, psychotherapy, and medications are used to treat SAD. Fall/winter SAD symptoms include depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, loss of interest, and difficulty concentrating. Spring/summer SAD symptoms include anxiety, trouble sleeping, irritability, and agitation. The specific cause of SAD is unknown but genetics, age, and chemical makeup may play a part in causing SAD. Also, being female, living far away from the equator, family history, and having clinical depression or bipolar disorder can increase a persons chances of having SAD.

Beyond SAD seasons can also affect a person’s learning. Recent studies have shown that taking classes in the summer allows students to focus solely on school without the worry of extracurricular activities that are normally associated with the other seasons. By continuing learning year round students also retain information better and don’t experience the loss of knowledge that normally comes with summer break.

Seasonal changes are more than just changes in the weather and can affect the mind and how a person performs in school, work, and even how a person acts everyday.

First Year of College and Academic Performance
For many students the first year of college is the first time they have had to be completely accountable for themselves. Students become responsible for their health, decisions, time, and school work all in a matter of months. Being around new students, new teachers, and often times a new city can add onto the already heavy load of a first year student. Many studies have been conducted to show the relationship of the new-found freedom and academic performance. Studies conducted showed that students who tended to wake up later had lower grade point averages. Strength training and religious studies were associated with higher grade point averages. By altering their environment straight A students often slip into an average level within the first semester of college. Beyond academic performance many first year students experienced an altered state of mental well-being along with a decreased involvement in social activities. Due to the drastic change in environment many first year college students experience some form of depression. Most however, do not seek help because they believe they are experiencing the normal stress of college. Some colleges offer adjustment programs to help students transition from their home environment to a new and strange environment. Along with adjustment programs more and more colleges are offering free to low-cost mental health services.

Though there can be many negatives that come with being thrown into a new environment first year college students learn many valuable things during their first year. Students learn how to negotiate and resolve issues, as well as how to make new friends. They also learn to hold themselves accountable for their actions and how to resolve issues without their parents help. Students learn how to become independent, responsible young adults to prepare them for the world they will enter after school.

3. Tips to Help Students
To ensure you are in the best environment possible:
  • Make sure you are comfortable and feel safe in the environment you live in
  • Surround yourself with people who are positive
  • Change your study places-- Pick two or three places and rotate between them to ensure the surrounding environment is one that will allow for optimal learning
  • On test days wear colors that brighten your mood such as orange, or blue to relax you on days where you have to give a presentation
  • Use the resources available to you
  • Seek help before issues blow out of proportion
  • Find ways to manage your time wisely
  • Learn what works best for you

4. Activity
This link contains many helpful tips for college students and also helps to put the first year into perspective. In addition it also offers many helpful hints to help resolve issues, better take care of yourself, and get involved.
Also, taking personality tests such as the one above help you to determine what your quirks are and what you like. It is a way to better understand who you are and what you like. Though the tests may not be 100% accurate they help to give you an idea of the overall picture.

5. Sources
Elizabeth Barnett, PhD and Michele Casper, PhD, A Definition of “Social Environment”, American Journal of Public Health, March 2001, Vol. 91, No. 3