Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better. — Albert Einstein
“Sometimes a tree tells you more than you can read in books.” — C.G. Jung
It’s all about attention:
“Attention is the holy grail,” a recent New York Times article quotes psychologist and researcher David Strayer from the University of Utah. The article is a story about brain researchers rafting the San Juan River in UT in order to experientially explore the effects of “logging off” and time spent in nature. Some job!
The NYT article, Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain, continues:
“Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.” [attention]
“Echoing other researchers, Mr. Strayer says that understanding how attention works could help in the treatment of a host of maladies, like attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia and depression. And he says that on a day-to-day basis, too much digital stimulation can “take people who would be functioning O.K. and put them in a range where they’re not psychologically healthy.”
The neurology of being outdoors:
“The findings demonstrate that tranquil environmental scenes containing natural features, such as the sea, cause distinct brain areas to become ‘connected’ with one another while man-made environments, such as motorways, disrupt the brain connections.”
… “People experience tranquility as a state of calmness and reflection, which is restorative compared with the stressful effects of sustained attention in day-to-day life, says Michael Hunter, from the department of neuroscience at Sheffield University.
This line of research is not in itself new, and some might argue is but confirmation of common sense. What is new is our capacity to image the brain and externally monitor the body during such “outdoor experiences.” What is also new is a more conscious application of this knowledge in settings from education to business to health care, from garden design to the presence of living plants in the board and classroom.
Health care may be leading the way; business and education interests will do well to pay attention.
“…a growing body of research is showing that exposure to natural environments can improve both the patient experience and health outcomes. …studies…have shown a connection between exposure to nature and improved healing, less medication use, shorter hospitalizations, and decreased anxiety and stress among family members and staff.” (Therapeutic Responses to Natural Environments)
In research reported by the Life Science Foundation, on the difference between taking a walk in an indoor shopping center vs. taking a walk in nature:
• 71% reported decreased levels of depression after the green walk
• 22% felt their depression increased after walking through indoor shopping center
• 71% felt less tense after the green walk
• 50% felt their tension had increased after shopping center walk
• 90% had an increase in self-esteem after the green walk
• 44% said their self-esteem had decreased after window-shopping indoors
It is worth noting at this point that a more highly connected and integrated brain, the… shall we say… ‘green brain,’ is a more creative and resilient brain as well.
Spending time in natural settings is clearly a life-affirming path to strengthening our resilience. Research confirms that as little as 15 or 20 minutes a day can make a significant difference in your life, not only in your sense of vitality but also in your social intelligence. Consider what two, three or more days in a wild setting might do!
“Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don’t just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses. One of the pathways to health may be to spend more time in natural settings….” Spending Time in Nature Makes People Feel More Alive, Study Shows
Interesting isn’t it: spending time in nature is good for our health, creativity and resilience. Yet just as the neuroscience is pouring in confirming our need for ‘the wild,’ humanity stands at the precipice of a rapid decline and extinction of this very resource. How will we navigate, where will we find the resilience to navigate what biologists call the sixth great extinction of life on planet Earth?
It is all about attention. Remember?
“In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” — Henry David Thoreau
Note: This and subsequent parts were written in response to conversations with my colleague and friend Tom Wojick of The Renewal Group, and author at the Renewal Group Blog. This post is introduced in his newsletter, The Resiliency Imperative, a resource rich recommendation, which you can sign up for from Tom’s blog.