By: Natalie Wallace
As human beings, the natural world is our place of origin. It’s what we have evolved from over thousands of years. Lucky for us, we are the smartest out of all the Earth’s animals, with remarkable critical thinking capabilities that have led us to imagine, design, and manipulate the physical world around us in our favor. But perhaps our prefrontal cortex is a double edged sword. Indeed, it has caused us to feel and respond to life’s challenges, giving us amazing technological advances like skyscrapers, airplanes, and life-saving medical devices. Ironically, the more we use our neurological abilities to improve human quality of life, the farther we are pushed from the natural world. Not only are we becoming more and more disconnected from nature, we are abusing it altogether.
In an article in National Geographic Magazine titled “This is Your Brain on Nature” by Florence Williams, this concept is discussed as Williams tells a short story of his experience in the Utah desert with David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist, and Strayer’s students. What Williams infers throughout via Strayer’s “three day effect” as well as the findings of many other scientists in different countries around the world is that, nature is the antidote to stress.
Stress is caused by many things including but not limited to: work life, travel, family, moving, marriage, divorce, finances, chronic illness or injury, emotional imbalance, etc. In turn, living with stress often causes more of the things listed earlier to manifest. This makes the human stress response a vicious cycle. Every human being on the planet has experienced stress in their life at one point. It’s just a part of life. However, it is entirely manageable. And from the looks of recent research it seems like the best cure is to get outdoors.
Strayer’s “Three Day Effect” Theory
David Strayer specializes in the study of human attention as a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah. He understands that the brain is much more likely to make a mistake in a modern situation such as multitasking or trying to focus in a stressful environment. Our brains are easily worn out and need breaks just like our muscles do. Stayer’s theory is that three days in pleasant and calming, natural surroundings has great restorative effects on the brain. It allows us to recharge, and in turn our mental performance improves.
In his study, Strayer found that participants did 50 percent better on creative problem solving tasks after having spent three days on a backpacking trip. Being in the wilderness gives the brain a chance to unwind and reset. On their desert adventure, Williams gets hooked up to an EEG machine to see if brain wave data coinciding with the “three day effect” will be apparent. Indeed, his “midline frontal theta waves” were much lower in activity than those of individuals who were in the city. But, Williams reminds us, it’s not about the hard evidence, it’s about how being connected to nature makes us feel.
What the Research is Saying
Williams brings up multiple studies in several different countries throughout his article. Some of them gathered compelling data. Williams stated, according to Japanese research findings, a 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology. Yoshifumi Miyazaki lead a study at Chiba University who sent 84 subjects to walk in seven different forests, while the same number of volunteers took to the city streets. The forest strollers showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 4 percent drop in heart rate, and a 2 percent drop in blood pressure. Williams comments that Miyazaki believes our bodies relax in pleasant, natural surroundings because they evolved there. We are made to perceive meadows and mountains, not traffic and concrete buildings.
Yet, only about 10 percent of American teens spend time outside every day, according to a recent Nature Conservancy poll. According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, American adults spend less time outdoors than they do inside automobiles—an astounding less than 5 percent of their day! It sounds like madness, but for most people, it’s reality, and it needs to change.
Greg Bratman and his colleagues, researchers at Stanford University, analyzed the brain waves of 38 volunteers before and after they walked for 90 minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street. Those who spent time in the park showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain tied to depressive rumination—which is focused attention on one’s distress. Being outside in a pleasant environment allows us to get out of our heads. Nature, Bratman says, may influence “how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.”
What People are Doing About It
In South Korea, they have been experimenting with a concept they call “forest healing” in which the government runs programs where South Koreans can get out in nature more often and spend more time there. Programs include everything from prenatal forest meditation to woodcrafts for cancer patients to forest burials.
Nooshin Razani at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, is one of several doctors who have noticed this new data on nature and human health. As an attempt to make big changes, she’s training doctors in the outpatient division to write prescriptions for children and their families to visit nearby parks. They have maps on the walls with beautiful photos of wilderness to help set a new mindset for both doctors and patients.
In Finland, a country with high rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide, government-funded research compares the mood and stress levels of people in nature and urban areas. Based on the data, the Natural Resources Institute Finland recommend a minimum of five hours a month of nature exposure to combat depression. Kalevi Korpela, a professor of psychology at the University of Tampere helped design twelve hiking paths that encourage exercise, mindfulness, and self-reflection. You can find signs that prompt you to get the most out of your nature therapy session that say things like, “Squat down and touch a plant.”
So what can you do about it? Get outside more. Apply the body mechanics and posture techniques that you have learned in the studio to your everyday life. Make an effort to immerse yourself in the wild as much as you can — the more the better. Join us when we go on our Fitsom outings, as they are nature-focused and a great way to have fun while getting in some physical activity and resetting the overworked brain. When we aren’t out exploring and having fun, take mini walks through a park on your lunch break, schedule short camping trips over the weekends, drive to a nearby lake or river and hang out or paddle board, go on a hike somewhere. Don’t over think it. The point is to be calmed, centered and collected by nature’s incredible ability to just be.