A few years ago, I ran across a particularly intriguing photograph on the back page of a magazine. The photo showed a small boy at the ocean's edge. Beyond him you could see a gray sky, a distant island, and a long, even wave approaching. The boy had turned to face the photographer. His eyes were wide with wonder and there was a touch of impishness. His mouth was open in an exclamation of discovery and joy.
Next to the black-and-white image was a short article about the boy, who, it seemed, had a problem. He was hyperactive and found it difficult to pay attention in school. He was disruptive in the classroom and had been expelled. At first, his parents did not know what to do. More about that boy later, but first…
Take a look at the Oct. 9, 2012 article in the New York Times about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which these days seems to be diagnosed as often as flu. The story focuses on the dramatic increase in the number of prescriptions for pharmaceuticals, such as Adderall and Ritalin, for struggling students. The reporter found these drugs are often prescribed simply to increase student performance in schools, particularly in inadequate, underfunded schools. “I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” Dr. Michael Anderson, a pediatrician who practices north of Atlanta, told the Times reporter. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”
For many children with ADHD symptoms – but not all children -- research suggests that more experiences in nature can help. Unfortunately, our society seems to look everywhere but more natural environments for the enhancement of intelligence.
Poor kids, rich kids – smart pills are in. And they have been for a while.
Many people already take “natural” supplements to enhance or calm the brain — Ginkgo biloba for increased blood flow to the brain, Saint-John’s wort for depression, and so on. Gary Stix, writing in Scientific American, reports a boom in pill popping to build brain performance. College students and business executives are downing stimulant drugs for routine mental performance, though the drugs were never approved for that purpose.
Called neuroenhancers, nootropics, or smart drugs, the smart pills of choice currently include methylphenidate (Ritalin), the amphetamine Adderall, and modafinil (Provigil). “On some campuses, one quarter of students have reported using the drugs,” according to Stix. These stimulants may be helpful to some in the short run, but the long-term side effects are yet to be determined.
Beyond drugs, the news media’s imagination also has been captured by the potential of artificial neural networks — the reproduction or extension of the biological nervous system — to boost human intelligence. Meanwhile, we’re rapidly expanding an electronic environment wired for attention interruption, even as we cut or ignore non-pharmaceutical solutions – such as recess, gym, and simply going outside.
The study of the relationships between mental acuity, creativity, and time spent outdoors remains a scientific frontier, but the latest research suggests that exposure to the living world can enhance intelligence for some people. This probably happens in at least two ways: first, our senses and sensibilities are improved through our direct interaction with nature (and practical knowledge of natural systems is still applicable in our everyday lives); second, a more natural environment seems to stimulate our ability to pay attention, think clearly, and be more creative, whether we live in suburbs or urban neighborhoods.
One example of the emerging research: At the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers have learned that children show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention-deficit disorder when they engage with nature. This research has positive implications for education, for business, and for the daily lives of young and old. But such discoveries are generally ignored by too many educators, health-care providers and even by the journalist who wrote the excellent article for The New York Times about medicated schoolchildren.
Let me be clear, I’m not a Ritalin Radical. The case is strong that some children do seem to need psychotropic drugs to function well and have a better life. But other kids may well need an added or alternative therapy — and nature time may be just what the doctor ordered. Or could.
When Brenda Hardie, of Faribault, Minnesota, learned about the research linking time in nature with reduced ADHD symptoms, she thought that while it might not be a panacea, time outdoors couldn’t hurt her son and it just might help him. According to Hardie, “He's been able to come off all his medicine for the ADHD. Playing, working -- as in garden and yard work or shoveling in winter -- and simply just being outside makes a huge difference for him.”
And what became of that little boy on the beach, expelled because of his classroom hyperactivity? Fortunately, his parents had already noticed how nature calmed their son and helped him focus. Over the next decade, they seized every opportunity to introduce him to the natural world — to beaches, forests, dunes, the rivers and mountains of the American West.
The photograph was taken in 1907. The little boy turned out fine. His name was Ansel Adams.
What if Ansel's parents had taken a different route? Would he have given us those iconic, culture-shaping photographs of the dome of Yosemite and the moon rising over Hernandez, New Mexico? How many of today’s children could give us great gifts in the future, if we give them the gift of nature?
Richard Louvis author of “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” from which parts of this article are adapted. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Children and Nature Network.