Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative
I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.
– John Burroughs
People know from their own experience, intuitively, that being in nature calms the mind and brings ease – and awe – to the soul.
In The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, journalist Florence Williams explores the latest research on the impact of nature on the brain. Time spent in forests, in parks, in greenbelts, reduces stress, improves memory and cognitive functioning, shifts our mood and boost our creativity.
Williams takes the reader to research sites of “forest bathing” in Japan and Korea, to wilderness immersion in Arches National Park in Utah, to summer camps in North Carolina, to housing projects in Chicago, and to a community hospital in Singapore.
The Nature Fix provides throughout the factoids from published research studies that can make a jaunt to the woods or an afternoon by a stream so compelling:
* leisurely forest walks decrease blood pressure and cortisol levels dramatically compared to urban walks;
* aromatherapy – two hours of hiking three days in a row, breathing in phytoncides (nice tree smells) from cypress trees increased natural killer cells that combat cancer and viruses by 40%; the effects lasted more than a week. A whiff of hinoki oil from cypress trees can drop blood pressure 12 points.
* viewing images of nature increases blood flow to the insula and anterior cingulate, associated with pleasure, empathy, and unconstrained thinking. In the same people viewing images of urban scenes, blood flow increased to the amygdala, which registers fear and anxiety.
* three days of hiking in wilderness boosts creativity by 50%
In 2008, homo sapiens officially became an urban species, more people living in urban areas than in rural ones. As human beings, especially in developed countries, begin to spend more time than ever indoors and on screens, “nature deficiency” radically impacts our nervous system and well as higher brain functioning. We’re discovering, time in nature is not a luxury; it’s essential to our physical, emotional and mental well-being.
May the suggestions to spend a little bit more time every week, every day, in greenery and fresh air be beneficial to you and yours.
How do researchers study the effect of something as beautiful and complex as nature on something as beautiful and complex as the human brain? With modern technology – EEG’s and fMRI’s, with self-reports and standardized questionnaires, sometimes by “taking off your watch, turning off your devices, and diving into the wild.”
Three areas of discovery:
1) Reducing stress – “forest bathing,” – shinrin yoku, in Japan.
Japanese office workers work longer hours than anyone else in the developing worlds and have the third highest suicide rate in the world. The Japanese have even coined a term – karoshi – for death from overwork. To help reduce stress and promote physical/mental wellness, the Forestry Agency in Japan has developed 48 official “forest therapy” trails where people can “bathe” in their five senses – inhale the spicy scent of a spice bush twig, drink mountain-grown wasabi root and bark flavored tea, stretch out on a cool, mossy boulder, listen to pond ducks quacking, stroll among beech and chestnut trees.
And researchers at the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University, Tokyo, are quantifying nature’s role in lowering stress and boosting mental health, measuring changes in blood pressure, pulse rate, variable heart rate, cortisol levels, and blood flow in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, center of executive functioning.
Forest bathing is being medicalized in South Korea (salim yok) as part of the government’s commitment to “better health through forests.” South Korea is one of the world leaders in the undersung but powerful science of forest smells.
The human nose can detect one trillion odors and the nose (olfactory bulb) is a direct pathway to the brain, bypassing the blood brain barrier and immediately affecting our gray matter. Still being researched in clinical trails, aromatherapy is the most popular alternative treatment for anxiety world-wide, and in South Korea is part of a forest healing program for firefighters with PTSD. Another reason it’s very helpful to walk in the woods: leaves soak up the particulate pollution of our urban environments; we feel better and our brain are more nimble.
2) Brain resting – how nature helps us restore attention, sharpen cognition, think, solve problems, and work together.
The brain has two major modes of focusing attention – the task-oriented, problem solving mode of the pre-frontal cortex and the relaxed, daydreaming mode of the default network. The unfocused mode of attention of the default network is a necessary balance to the energy-consuming focus of the pre-frontal cortex.
“Attention is everything. Your brain keeps track of about four things at once. How do you prioritize what’s important and what’s not? Through inhibition. I’ve always found it interesting that most connections in the brain are inhibitory functions. We have far more information than we can deal with. Most of what the brain is doing is filtering, tuning stuff out so we can focus in on things that are relevant.”
– Paul Atchley, world expert on attention, distraction, and the “attention economy”
Williams goes on to explain: “Because of this interplay of observation, selective attention, and inhibition, humans are able to achieve higher-order cognition, which includes creative problem-solving, goal-following, planning and multi-tasking. The problem is that all this inhibition and filtering uses up cognitive fuel. It wallops us. Directed attention, or voluntary attention, is a limited resource. When it flags, we make mistakes; we get irritable. Moreover, task-switching, which is something we do an awful lot of these days, burns up precious oxygenated glucose from the pre-frontal cortex and other areas of the brain, and this is energy we need for both cognitive and physical performance. It’s no wonder it feels pretty good to space out and watch a butterfly.”
While Williams was hiking with many scientists in Hunter Canyon in Arches National Park, Utah, Paul Atchley observed, “What this environment is doing to us right now is giving us fewer choices. And by having fewer choices, your attentional system functions better for higher-order things. In the office environment, you’ve got emails, alerts, sounds. That’s a lot of filtering and so it’s harder to think deeply. Here the filtering requirements are not demanding, so you have the capacity to focus on deeper thought.”
Williams goes on, “Modern life does challenge us with unique attention loads, and most of us have not figured out how to thrive under them.”
Organizer of the hike, David Strayer of the University of Utah Applied Cognition Lab, says, “The world of office towers, traffic lanes and email isn’t ideally suited to our brains’ perceptual and cognitive systems.” The default network, credited with producing empathy, creativity, and heights of insight, allows the executive center of the brain to rest, all the better to rebound at top performance.
Williams: “Although we can’t always to much to turn off the barrage of stressors in our lives, we can try harder to get the restorative reprieves – from quick nature doses to longer ones – that give our thinking brains a chance to recover.”
This leads to the “brain resting” of Attention Restoration Theory, developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan. They found that short sessions of viewing images of nature (compared to pictures of urban setting) allowed people’s brain to behave as if at least partly “recovered”, specifically in measure of cognitive performance and executive attention. Rachel Kaplan thinks the effects will only get bigger as time in nature increases.
Another neuroscientist on the Hunter Canyon hike, Adam Gazzaley, commented, “Nature is restorative because it frees up the top-down part of our bran in a way that allows it to recover. Nature has this not totally unique but more powerful ability to capture your attention in a different way. Evolutionarily, nature is a powerful bottom-up experience for us.”
Added David Strayer, “We’ve known for a long time that athletes and artists can easily access flow states; the idea that the rest of us can touch that zone through nature is tantalizing.”
And Williams put it succinctly, “After days of wandering wilderness, resting the executive branch of the brain and watching the clouds drift across an endless sky, good shit happens to your brain.
3) Nature in Urban Settings
Roger Ulrich, psychologist, architect, and student of the Kaplans at University of Michigan, developed his own Stress Reduction Theory, based on discoveries that immersion in nature had immediate effects on our emotional and psychology health. One key study: that patients recovering from surgery healed faster and required less pain medication when views from their room looked out on trees or lawn rather than a brick wall or parking lot.
Studies since have shown that views of nature increase workers’ productivity, raise academic grades and test scores, reduce aggression in inner cities. Researchers have discovered an astonishing correlation between the level of greenery in a housing project in Chicago and the number of assaults, homicides, vehicle thefts, burglary, and arson. Perhaps because nature encourage people to spend more time outside; neighbors get to know, care about, and watch out for each other.
Other studies show that living near greenery, even potted plants, reduces loneliness and increases generosity, leading to prosocial behaviors and building a stronger sense of community.
Very recent research demonstrates that because our visual system is hardwired to respond to fractals (patterns repeating at larger and larger scales) and because nature is full of fractals – in clouds, coastlines, plant leaves, ocean waves, the clustering galaxies – viewing nature produces a resonance with the environment in our brain.
Viewing nature directly is best, no question, but even viewing images of nature on a large screen makes the brain happier than staring at a screen or a blank wall.
“The good news for city dwellers is that just fifteen to forty-five minutes in a city park, even one with pavement, crowds and some street noise, is enough to improve mood, vitality and feelings of restoration.” (Williams)
4) There’s much more in The Nature Fix:
* The effects of environmental noise pollution on the nervous system, and nature “soundscapes” – wind, water, birdsong – as medicine;
* A tour of Singapore, the third-densest city/country on earth, committed to becoming “a city within a garden,” with roadways lined with palm trees and flowering shrubs, green roofs and parks on parking lots, vertical gardens covering the outside of 20-sgtory buildings, and the garden courtyard of a community hospital with an inner courtyard of trees and shrubs to attract birds and butterflies, a central pond for endangered fish, a medicinal herb garden, walking paths, and an organic vegetable garden on the hospital roof;
* Eco-therapy – 12-week treatment programs for ex-felons and addicts in Scotland – to treat depression and increase sociability, physical health, and self-esteem;
* The benefit of spending three full days in wilderness, with other people, without any digital devices, on creativity, social connections, intuitive insights, and a deepening sense of awe.
* The impact of a five-day river rafting trip on the Salmon River in Idaho on women combat veterans recovering from PTSD;
* The mounting evidence that kids with ADHD and related learning disabilities thrive in the outdoors; expose to nature reduces symptoms 3-fold;
* And the importance of outdoor free play for every child. Human brains seem to grow best when they get some time outside; kids improve their manual dexterity, learn about cause and effect, and practice teamwork.
Williams: “Maybe schools in the United States don’t need more iPads and test prep; may they just need more Wellies.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
People are happiest when they are well enmeshed in community and friendships, have their basic survival needs met, and keep their minds stimulated and engaged, often in service of some cause larger than themselves. And, on average, people are significantly and substantially happier outdoors in all green or natural habitat types than they are in urban environments.
– George MacKerron, economist at University of Sussex
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Studies show that natural environments makes us healthier, more creative, more empathetic, and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.
– Florence Williams
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Until recently, psychologists and neuroscientists didn’t take our affinities for nature very seriously. Studying the impacts of the natural world on the brain is actually a scandalously new idea. It should have been studied thirty for fifty years ago. So why now? Probably because we’re losing our connection to nature more dramatically than ever before.
– Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and Florence Williams
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The passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.
– Erich Fromm
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The innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms as an evolutionary adaptation aiding not only survival but broader human fulfillment.
– E.O. Wilson, entomologist, Harvard
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Peaceful or nurturing elements of nature help us gain equanimity, cognitive clarity, empathy and hope. The humans most attuned to the cues of nature were the ones who survived to pass on those traits.
– Florence Williams
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Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in nature. Our physiology is still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.
– Yoshifumi Miyazaki, physical anthropologist, vice director of Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences, Chiba University, Tokyo
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We feel most at home in nature because we evolved there.
– Florence Williams
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Is the explosion of attractive technologies that give our brains social interactions negatively impacting us, and is the cure to go back to an environment that our brain resonates with? Tech is leading us in a negative direction and nature may prevent that.
– Paul Atchley, leading expert on the “attention economy”
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Humans have brains that are sensitive to social and emotional stress and we always have. Perhaps what matter is not the source of the stress but the ability to recover from it. This is a key point, because it’s perhaps what we’ve lost by giving up our connection to the night skies, the bracing air and the compassionate chorus of birds. When I’m walking across a pleasant landscape, I feel I have time and I feel I have space. I’m breathing deeply things that smell good and seeing things that bring delight. It’s hard not to feel the pull of a rounded reality when you’re dipping into a muddy trail or a flowing river.
– Florence Williams
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Nature employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.
– Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco
STORIES TO LEARN FROM[excerpted from Chapter 11, Please Pass the Hacksaw]
By second grade, it was clear that although Zack Smith could sit in a chair, he had no intention of staying in it. He was disruptive in class, spoke in a loud voice, and had a hard time taking turns. His parents fed him a series of medications for ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, many of which didn’t work. Zack, who attended school in West Hartford, Connecticut, was placed in special classrooms, where he showed a propensity for lashing out. Twice suspended, he was miserable. He didn’t seem to care about anything at school. When his parents realized that his path would like lead to worse trouble, they pulled the ripcord on eighth grade.
Before enrolling in an outdoor adventure-based boarding school, Zack had already spent some summers at SOAR, a well-established camp based in Balsam, North Carolina, for kids with ADHD and related learning disabilities. Before his experiences at SOAR, Zack would have preferred to stay home and play video games. “I hated nature,” as he put it. But something clicked under wide open skies. He found he was able to focus on tasks; he was making friends and feeling less terrible about himself. Zack turned his restlessness into a craving for adventure – which is perhaps what it was meant to be all along.
Where Zack eventually landed was spread-eagled on an east-facing slab of quartzite in Pendleton Country, West Virginia. “I have a wedgie!” he bellowed out from 20 feet up. He gradually pulled his right foot to a new nub and pulled himself higher. He scrabbled upward, finally victoriously slapping a carabiner on the top rope before rappelling down.
The founders of SOAR found that climbing, backpacking, and canoeing were a magical fit for ADHD kids at these ages (7th-12th grades) when their neurons are exploding in a million directions. “The adolescent pre-frontal cortex is ready to be molded by environmental experiences. When you’re on a rock ledge” says SOAR’s executive director John Willson, “there’s a sweet spot of arousal and stress that opens you up for adaptive learning. You find new ways of solving problems.”
Long standing research suggests that kids like Zack – and indeed, most kids – would be better off in dynamic outdoor learning environments from the very beginning. Nature play enhances at least two activities know to develop children’s cognitive and emotional development: exercise and exploratory play. Physical activity in school-age children (4-18) increases performance in a trove of brain matter: perceptual skills, IQ, verbal ability, mathematic ability, academic readiness. As Erin Kenny, founder of Cedarsong Nature School on Vashon Island, Washington has put it, “Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls.”
Zack’s parents told me they were planning to toss his anxiety drugs during his upcoming holiday break, and they expected to lower the dose of his stimulant as well. “The changes in him have been nothing shorts of miraculous,” said his mother, Marlene De Pecol. “Now he’s just happy.”
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Researchers are trying to measure how much time we need to spend in nature, in what kind of nature, to achieve what kind of effects. There are many confounds – elements that contribute to an effect other than purely being in pure nature – taking a break from work, from obligations, from digital devices – can have an effect on the brain and emotional health whether we are in nature or not.
But researchers agree – dosing is important. The more time you spend in nature, the better you feel. The brain can relax after 15 minutes in greenery; it will relax even more after 45 minutes. Extensive longitudinal studies in Finland have found that the minimal time we need in nature to stay healthy, creative, and sane is 5 hours per month. That’s 30 minutes a day a couple of times a week. Ten hours per month is even better; better mood, more vitality, better cognitive functioning, enhanced creativity. That’s 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. When you combine being in nature with exercise, the effects are additive. And, of course, a yearly or biyearly multi-day boost of nature in wilderness can “rearrange your core.”
* Walk in a city park for 30 minutes. Try adding elements of forest bathing – smelling the grass, feeling the sun and breeze on your skin, hearing birds or children laughing, lifting your eyes off the sidewalk to the horizon of trees and hills.
* Pay attention to “accidental nature,” noticing landscaped flower beds at the local gas station, grocery store, bank, or library.
* Walk to and from work or walk at lunchtime, finding whatever greenery is available, perhaps even bringing some greenery back into your office.
* Spend time tending plants in your home or gardening a flower bed or vegetable patch outdoors.
* Go for a Sunday drive in a rural, wooded area, then stop and get out of the car; take in the sights, sounds, smells for 5-15 minutes.
* Go outside before you go to bed, noticing whatever you can of clouds, moon, stars, quiet.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams. W.W. Norton, 2017.
Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality by Eva Selhub and Alan Logan, John Wiley and Sons, 2014.[see my July 2015 e-newsletter review of Your Brain on Nature.
A Little Handbook on Shinrun-Yoku by Adam Clifford. Adam Clifford, 2013.
The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age by Richard Louv. Algonquin Books, 2012.
Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, ed. by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist. Sierra Club Books, 2009.