Zen Saying: “You should sit in nature for 20 minutes a day…unless you’re busy, then you should sit for an hour.”
For centuries, people have written about their profound experiences in nature. All their expressions have a similarity and reliability to them. They talk of a sense of feeling grounded, expansive, alive, having clarity, being calm, peaceful, still, connected, even healed.
A few examples:
Eckhart Tolle: “When you bring your attention to a stone, a tree or an animal, something of its essence transmits itself to you. You can sense how still it is and in doing so the same stillness rises within you. You can sense how deeply it rests in being, completely one with what it is and where it is, in realizing this, you too come to a place of rest deep within yourself.”
Victoria Erickson: “Place your hands into soil to feel grounded. Wade in water to feel emotionally healed. Fill your lungs with fresh air to feel mentally clear. Raise your face to the heat of the sun and connect with that fire to feel your own immense power”
John Muir regarding the Sierra Nevada Mountains: “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
Henry David Thoreau: "I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees."
Albert Einstein: “Look deep into nature and them you will understand everything better.”
I thought I would write a blog sharing scientific evidence for the positive impact of being in nature. However, as I began to research, it turned into a rabbit hole of articles upon articles that have already done the same. What surprised me was evidence for the positive impact of Nature on our physical, emotional, and mental lives has been available since the 80’s! Yet so few of us think strategically about including a dose of nature, as we do for exercise, into our daily or weekly health regimen.
I am going to summarize some of the more powerful findings I came across but if you are interested in a deeper dive into the evidence, I will leave you, the reader, to turn to the many resources out there. For your convenience, I am listing a few good summary articles in the reference section below. I want to focus the rest of this writing on my own personal thoughts about why nature is so restorative to us.
Being in nature decreases stress. While strolling in woodlands for as little as 20 mins has been found to reduce stress, the same is not true if strolling in an urban setting. This specific impact of nature versus urban environments on stress is found even when the exposure to nature is just through a video or pictures of nature.
Studies have found the experience of decreased stress corresponds with actual changes in the brain; A Japanese study found a 16 % decrease in the stress hormone cortisol related to a stroll in a forest as compared to walking in a city landscape.
Being in nature increases overall health and wellbeing, including faster post-surgery recovery. Even just the view of a tree from a hospital room increases pain tolerance and decreases recovery post-surgery. A 2018 meta-analysis showed nature exposure was related to improved heart rate and blood pressure, reductions in cholesterol levels, improved sleep duration and neurological outcomes, reductions in the prevalence of type II diabetes, cardiovascular mortality, and overall mortality.
A study of a huge representative sample in UK found positive impacts of 120 mins of direct exposure to nature per week on health and well-being. What was powerful about this study was This effect remained true after controlling for factors such as sex, age, SES, level of physical activity, restricted functioning, employment & relationship status, number of children or even dog ownership.
Nature exposure increases positive mood and positively impacts mental health. Even sitting on a park bench for 5 mins has been found to reliably improve mood, both in terms of hedonic (pleasure and positive mood experience) and “self-transcendent” emotions. In fact, 95% of individuals in one study reported improved mood after spending time in nature, including feeling calm and balanced.
Other studies have also shown even SCENES of nature are associated with greater positive mood, psychological wellbeing, meaningfulness and vitality. For example, one study found just watching a few minutes of Planet Earth led people to feel 46 percent more awe and 31 percent more gratitude than those in the other groups. These positive emotions are also found to positively impact overall health and well-being.
In addition, walks in nature versus walks in an urban setting leads to decreased anxiety, rumination (defined as focused attention on negative aspects of oneself, and seen as a marker for the onset of depression and anxiety), negative affect as well as increased positive emotion. The findings on rumination were supported with a follow-up study using brain-scan technology (the fMRI), which showed increased activity in the subgenual prefontal cortex, and area of the brain involved in rumination and whose deactivation is affiliated with depression and anxiety.
Nature has cognitive benefits including improving cognitive functioning. One study found a 20% improvement in attention and memory after spending an hour interacting with nature regardless of the season or temperature. Another study found executive attention visibly improved in both older adults as well as college-aged students after a short exposure to just photos of nature. In general, experiments have found that being exposed to natural environments improves working memory, cognitive flexibility and attentional control, while exposure to urban environments is linked to attention deficits in both adults and children.
A series of studies by Strayer and colleagues found spending time in nature can give us the “attention restoration” we need after being on devices all day, which can then free up our cognitive resources again for better problem solving and creativity. The theory here is that walking or hiking through green spaces seems to rest people’s attention networks (as opposed to our attention constantly being pulled on by our technology and gadgets) and allows the “default mode network” to come on-line. The DMN is associated with wakeful rest and has been found to be involved in creativity.
Nature exposure makes you a better human. Several studies have also found that viewing nature in images or videos leads to greater “prosocial” tendencies—generosity, cooperation, kindness, lower self-entitlement and self-import, as well as a sense of one’s owns concerns being insignificant but feeling a part of something larger. Nature seems to enhance our empathy and sense of connection to others. Studies using fMRIs to measure brain activity found when participants viewed scenes of nature, the parts of their brain associated with empathy, altruism and love lit up (the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula), but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety (the amygdala) lit up.
Another real in life experiment showed that residents in public housing who had green space around their buildings were more connected to their neighbors, had a greater sense of community and support for each other, and reported lower levels of crime and domestic violence than those living in buildings without trees.
Other studies point to the possibility that positive emotions, like a sense of awe, elicited by natural beauty are, in part, what plays into the connection between nature and prosocial behaviors. Again, brain studies show shifts in the brain mirror these findings: Viewing natural beauty (in the form of landscape paintings and videos, at least) activates specific reward circuits in the brain associated with dopamine release that give us a sense of purpose, joy, and energy to pursue our goals. Happy, joyful people, are more likely to be giving.
Given the powerful impact nature exposure seems to have some countries are starting to think about the place nature can play in healing and overall well-being. ‘Forest Healing” is now a thing in South Korea; guides can take you on hikes considered to be healing. There is also a government sponsored 3-day forest healing program for PTSD. In Finland, a team of researchers recommended a minimum nature dose of 5 hours a month to help combat high levels of depression, alcoholism, and suicide in the country. The impact seems undeniable and, if we take care of it, nature is free and can always be there for us.
EXPLANATIONS FOR THE NATURE CONNECTION:
While research in the nature connection is robust in terms of demonstrating the impact of nature on our lives, there really isn’t much in way of explaining why.
One theory by evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, the “biophilia hypothesis” posits there are evolutionary reasons why people seek out nature experiences. For example, we may have learned to seek out beautiful, natural spaces because they are also resource-rich environments; they are optimal for providing food, shelter, and comfort. Also, because our ancestors relied on the natural environment for survival, we are still drawn to connect with it. “Attention Restoration” theory suggests since we were born to process nature, non-natural urban environments but a strain on our cognitive capacities. Spending time in nature then helps us replenish those cognitive resources. Other theories have been proposed, but there does not seem to be an evidence-based answer for why nature has such a positive impact on us.
MY OWN MUSINGS ON NATURE:
I wonder if the lack of real knowledge about how nature triggers such positive reactions in our brains and bodies is elusive, because we venturing into connections that are not material in the way we experience the world, but maybe more mystical and, can I venture to say, spiritual? We evolved in nature. We are part of nature. We are not separate from it. We are connected to the natural world; we are in it and it is in us.
I think the existential impact of nature is the most powerful but also inexplicable one. I think it goes beyond the realm of matter. I forget where I heard it the first time, but the fact that nearly all the elements in the human body originated in stars blew my mind as to the profound connection within the whole natural world, and in that I include each one of us and the entire universe. I wonder then if the way we now live, which is so separate from nature and the rhythm of nature, is what creates a sense of isolation, disconnection, imbalance, and unhappiness that seems to be growing within the human race. Perhaps we are not living according to our “true” nature, which is one that is more in synch and more connected to the natural world, and when we do come “home” to nature, we experience a rebalancing.
The answer is unclear, but what is clear is the potent impact a dose of nature has on us. I wanted to share what it feels like for me when I do get to spend some time outside in nature. I mainly love to stroll, or just sit in nature, maybe even do a walking meditation.
First my breath slows.
Then my heart slows.
There is peace and stillness.
But also, fullness.
My perception becomes more acute; I start to notice the smallest details around me.
I can also feel more. If there are pain points I haven’t dealt with, I may be able to feel them now. But it is ok because I process them, and they soften.
My awareness expands; my sense of self expands, and I start to feel my physical boundaries soften as I absorb the world and feel bigger. Boundless. There is a sense of being a part of it all. I think I even stand taller.
I feel a sense of awe at the things I see, the beauty in nature. And I feel hope in the miracle of it.
But most deeply, I feel I belong. I am connected.
I am held.
It is this last part, being held, that I think by losing our connection with nature, we lose a bit of our foundation. As a developmental psychology student, we learned a lot about security and attachment; basically, a sense of security to explore the world, take risks, or try new things comes from secure early attachments. Having a secure “home base” gives us the foundation, the ground, the center, we need to go out an explore an unknown, unpredictable world. Knowing you can always go home to a loving, holding environment gives you courage to go out into the world. As we get older, the secure attachment to our parents becomes internalized within us as we form our own sense of internal safety, security and a deep foundation. Some of us who had less than ideal childhoods struggle with security and attachment of course.
I wonder if our relationship to nature is something like that? The difference being. our relationship to nature is always dependable and secure. Nature is like the mother of all mothers holding environment, a place we can always return to feel held, safe, and connected. The connection is something deeper than can be measured. It’s intuitive. Natural. Spiritual. Something that began in the stars many, many, billions of years ago.
I don’t have the answer as to the mechanisms through which nature exerts its magic on us, but I do know the impact is undeniable. If reading this blog did anything, I hope it convinced you to make sure you get your dose of nature every day.
Happy Earth Day.