“Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost,” the researchers wrote in their paper. It exists, they continued, and it’s called “interacting with nature.”
Humans evolved their senses to interpret their environment, for 5 million years it was information about plants and streams, food production, baby making and the rare yet extremely stressful situation of running from predators. In the last few hundred years however, our senses have become inundated with a series of particularly stressful, daily sympathetic triggers such as traffic jams, concrete jungles, load noises, bills and deadlines that make up our daily interaction. Today large scale public health problems such as heart disease, obesity, depression, concentration impairment and pervasive nearsightedness, are all associated with high stress and little time spend outdoors.
In the USA adults spend less time outdoors than they do in their cars – less than 5% of their day. Only about 10 percent of American teenagers spend some time outside every day. Richard Louv, well known for his concept of “nature deficit disorder” has written several books on what he calls the “greatest experiment ever done on our children” outlining the effects on the mental development of youth (and now adults) who have grown up removed from their natural environment. Kids who are pulled out of nature fail to develop the parts of their brains that allow them to use some relational senses like balance, trust in activity, relationship to natural environments and indeed their own empathetic caring for the environment and other living beings. For many of us who were fortunate enough to have an outdoor childhood, our fondest memories are from camping trips, forts, getting dirty and trips to the cabin. The prospect of a childhood removed from these experiences is indeed a sad one yet it is increasingly common, as kids spend their time growing up with technology.
Technology gives us tremendous convenience, access to the web of knowledge that has been collectively woven around the world. It is exciting and entertaining, allows us to witness what is happening in other countries, yet it is not without its costs. It adds stress and overstimulation on the individual. Some scientists suggest that technologies are in a way “ruining our lives”. The analogy of turning us into a fast-twitch animal, who is adapting to respond to an alarm clock that is going off every 30 seconds; we preferentially develop the parts of ourselves that are equip to respond to beeps and 2 dimensional screens. It is zapping our ability to concentrate for a long time and zapping our ability to appreciate the natural world.
Korean researchers use functional MRI to watch brain activity in people viewing different images: looking at urban scenes, cars and phones where they find that brains show more blood flow to the amygdala (which processes fear and anxiety). To contrast this to our brains when looking at natural scenes, they see lighting up of the anterior cingulate and insula – areas associated with empathy and altruism (nature makes us nicer as well as calmer). There is a plethora of research from Japan that examines the effects of Shinrin Yoku (the trendy term for spending time in nature) who repeatedly find measurable reduction in cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate after time spent in nature. Researcher David Strayer published a paper demonstrating measurable improved emotional awareness, faster problem solving and increased creativity after weekend retreats in nature. Nature changes how we allocate our attention and whether or not we focus on negative emotions. It provides a break from the “nervous irritation" of city life and lets the neural pathways that allow for relation, relaxation and problem solving to synapse more freely. It seems however, that it is not enough to walk to a pretty landscape and snap a few pictures, individuals need to take time to slow down and connect, to breathe the forest air and let their feet be held firmly on the soil.
There are movements that seek to teach us how to connect properly, to teach us what was once an innate ability. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs trains educators and has members in Vancouver who can lead groups, nature family clubs are popping up on social media and plan monthly get-togethers and forest preschools are quickly becoming popular, forest schools of Canada lists schools available in your area. These are just a few of the great opportunities to get families involved in developing connection to nature and I encourage you to find some that fit for you.
Visit http://www.natureandforesttherapy.org for a free forest therapy starter kit
Visit http://childnature.ca/forest-school-canada/ to check out some forest preschool or elementary school for your children
Visit http://www.wildhealthlife.com/forest-preschool/ to read a blog post on forest preschool and access my blog aimed to inspire nature connection and interaction
Atchley, RA., Strayer, D. (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLOS ONE 7(12)
Wohllenben, Peter. (2015) The Hidden Life of Trees; What they feel, how they communicate. Discoveries from a Secret World. Random House Publishing.
Kaplan, Stephen (1995) The Restorative Benefits of Nature Toward an Integrative Framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology. (15) 169-182.
Williams, Florence. (2015 ) This is your Brain on Nature. National Geographic Magazine
Park, B., Tsunetsugu, Y. et al. (2010) The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine. Jan; 15(1): 18-26
Qing Li et al. (2016) Effects of Forest Bathing on Cardiovascular and Metabolic Parameters in Middle Aged Males. Evidence–Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 2016
Louv, Richard. (2008) Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books