The Nature Fix
We’ve all had a gut feeling that time spent away from technology - fully immersed in nature - is good for us. There is plenty of evidence now that our brains are “hyper-stimulated” by technology. This is leaving our neurons chronically fatigued. In fact, Dr. David Strayer, Professor of Cognition and Neural Science at the University of Utah, says digital multi-tasking depletes neurotransmitters.
Is it simply that nice, picturesque settings are pleasant and make us feel good or is there something more going on? “The Nature Fix” by Florence Williams presents a surprisingly large body of hard scientific research that “nature bathing” (spending time in natural spaces) has physiological benefits way beyond the obvious.
The lack of regular exposure to natural settings has been associated with anxiety, depression and ADHD. There have been programs to take subjects suffering from these conditions into the natural world with measurable improvements. Interventions that immerse people in nature speed recovery from sickness and improve mental health. Time in forests boosts our immune system. Japanese researchers have lead the way in studies that demonstrate that old growth trees produce gases called phytonicides that are antibacterial, anti-fungal and boost numbers of disease-fighting, immune cells in our blood. In Japan you can go on forest bathing tours. Nature bathing increases our attention span, improves our ability to focus on a task, and has measurable benefits on creativity, productivity, and our ability to problem solve. The higher the number of trees growing on a school campus the lower student stress levels and the better their exam scores. Even houseplants improve mood.
Three days of immersion in nature appears to be the optimal “dose” to maximize health benefits and detox from technology. But Dr Strayer cautions people to turn off your phones. If you answer calls or texts, or are receiving notifications the positive brain effects of spending time in the bush are lost. And don’t worry if you can’t go trekking or camping or catch that nature retreat. Just walking through a park or even looking at some trees through a window has benefit. Hospital patients, for example, who can see foliage through a window recover faster than those facing a blank wall? According to Finnish researchers a minimum of 5 hours per month gives the most mental health benefits. Dr. David Strayer argues that the ever-present “brain fatigue” we experience from our constant use of modern technology is actually more effectively reversed by time in nature than by time sleeping. I think most of us know this intuitively but why do your own research! Check in with your body and mind after your next nature fix and take notice of how you feel and think. Has anything changed? The health gains are now being documented with sophisticated scientific tools like EEG and functional MRI.
In a recent interview on the “Slow Home” podcast, Florence Williams makes the point that we don’t have to travel halfway across the world to find some untouched wilderness in order to gain a “Nature Fix”. Nature can be found wherever we are. Computers and smartphones are here to stay and are fabulously useful, but we obviously need a tool to help us mitigate their side effects. Who knew that a powerful free antidote has been surrounding us all along? Personally, I have been inspired to regularly mute my phone, make more time for gardening and bush/beach walks.
Increasing our time in wild places also enables us to get a good regular dose of the sunlight that is important for Vitamin D synthesis which helps prevent brittle bones as we age. And taking our shoes off and feeling the planet beneath our feet enables our bodies to connect to the planet receiving its electromagnetic waves which some cardiologists say is good for heart health. And then there are medicinal plants and essential oils. It seems science is catching up with what our indigenous cultures have always known - Mother Earth heals.
Do you forest bathe or spend time in nature? What is that like for you? Feel free to drop a comment.
Next week I am looking at what yoga philosophy and other wisdom traditions have to say about nature, the environment and sustainability.
Dr. David Strayer, Professor of Cognition and Neural Science at the University of Utah, Park City, UT