“Yeah, yeah, Nature’s great. I know all about it,” a friend remarked to me while perusing emails on their smartphone. “Do you?” I asked, “Because I didn’t know all about it…..”
I didn’t realize how “great” Nature really is until I embarked on the project of co-authoring Your Brain on Nature (Wiley, 2012) with Naturopath, Dr. Alan Logan. Amazingly, while I was advocating nature walks and using nature in visual imagery to achieve better health outcomes, Dr. Logan was researching the research on the effects that advanced technology has had on our health, especially with regard to our use of technology over use of time in nature. Delving further, we discovered the myriad of studies pointing to the incredible health benefits of nature, especially on our brain.
So in this article, I hope to enrich you with information related to these findings (of course, just enough to entice you to read the book, because this article will only offer you the tip of the iceberg), but more so, to open your eyes, minds and encourage you to improve your health by accessing the benefits of nature.
Did you know, that compared to 1980, we cram in an extra 4.4 hours per day of information consumption outside of work and that the human brain is wired for info-desire? This means, that seeking information feels good and stimulates brain reward pathways, just like seeking nurturing food does. However, the brain can easily be stressed by trying to distinguish information that serves us versus junk, so it seeks to find the good information more. Just like many of us often find ourselves seeking comfort food when we are feeling anxious or stressed.
The lure of instant screen-based information can be over-powering, just like the lure of French fries from your favorite fast food restaurant. The next thing you know, perusing the information highway on your smart phone or computer, displaces health-promoting activities – exercise, meaningful social interaction, contemplation, mindful eating and being outdoors. One study claimed that 16-year downtrend in national park visits could be explained by the increase in watching movies, playing video games, internet use, along with rising oil prices oil prices.
Indeed, it is not surprising that researches are finding that there is a strong correlation with more screen time and higher incidences of depression and anxiety, poor performance, and attention deficit. In a number of studies scientists induce mental fatigue in healthy subjects via cognitively demanding tasks, and then half of the group view nature scenes, while the others view urban built scenes. Upon repeat cognitive testing, those who viewed nature scenes had improved accuracy in target detection, faster reaction time, and a higher number of correct responses to challenge and better memory recall.
In research involving mentally fatigued adults, a walk (for a little less than an hour) in a vegetation-rich urban park (vs. city streets) significantly improves mental performance. Similar findings have been reported in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Research shows that classroom, dormitory and cafeteria views to green vegetation are under-appreciated factors in academic performance on standardized tests.
So in this day and age of the rising of such diagnoses as attention deficit disorder both in adults and children, as well as the aging population that needs to be concerned about keeping up cognitive functioning of their brain, it may behoove us to at least take a walk in the park, no? This is only one example of the sort of studies that are ongoing.
Simple acts such as keeping a plant in your office, sitting by a window, or having a scene of nature that you can gaze at every now and then, have also been found to be associated with better health. What I would like you to do is conduct an experiment for yourself. Spend more time in nature—garden, go for walks, stare out the window, buy some new plants and nurture them… Make an effort to do this at least for a few days and see if your energy level or mood improve.
Conversely, though I am not advocating this, you can notice how you feel after a day or two of nature deprivation—like not leaving your house or office, staying glued to the computer, smartphone or TV. You can notice how you feel. Then, if you are up to it, write me and let me know what happens.
For now, I am putting on my boots and going to stomp around in the snow for a bit!