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Nurture Your Nature Connection to Maximize Brain Power

The human brain evolved to perform in natural settings. Give it what it likes.

Key points

  • Grass, trees, animal life, sky, and sunshine are conducive to better thinking.
  • Modern civilization is a relatively recent phenomenon and, in some ways, remains an alien concept to the human brain.
  • Respond to the mind’s natural attraction to the natural world by bringing nature into a workspace.
Guy P. Harrison
Incorporating nature into the workspace may enhance moods, boost creativity, and extend mental stamina.
Source: Guy P. Harrison

Whether you know it or not, your favorite color is green. The magnificent organ that resides in your cranium has a particular fondness for nature. Grass, trees, animal life, sky, and sunshine are conducive to better thinking. This makes sense, of course, because the human brain evolved in natural environments over millions of years.

This legacy remains strong no matter how deeply entombed in modern life one may be. Sitting inside concrete structures and staring into computer screens all day does not make it go away. Those who seek to maximize cognitive power in work mode must acknowledge and accommodate this nature connection. If your brain loves nature, then it’s only wise to give it what it wants.

A substantial and growing body of scientific work suggests that natural settings are best for challenging mental work. (See references below). Nature’s cues can make us more alert and creative within a workspace, improve mood, extend mental endurance, and elevate vitality.

Modern civilization is a relatively recent phenomenon and, in some ways, remains an alien concept to our brains. To think your best, incorporate nature into the work environment. This has never been easier than today, with so many people working at home and having more control. However, if you are not fortunate enough to live and work in a treehouse, do the best you can. Bring plants into your home, keep a pet close, display artwork with natural themes, work near a window with a view, etc. Make your brain comfortable by giving it some nature.

If I can’t work outside, I make sure to work in front of a window that offers a view of trees only a couple of meters away. Whenever I glance up from the laptop before me, my tired eyes connect with a beautiful riot of green leaves framed by blue sky. According to science, repeated simple acts may help soothe and silence whatever inner demons are harassing me at that moment—thus allowing me to concentrate better and create. Perhaps the trees reassure my worrisome and paranoid subconscious that, for all my problems, at least I have not been abducted and whisked away to an alien planet. I’m still home.

I also keep a 400-million-year-old trilobite fossil nearby. It offers me a connection to both the natural world and deep time. One semi-conscious glance at this ancient life-become-rock reminds me that my existence is but a minuscule speck in a vast cosmos. Better make good use of my time and brain power while I can.

Several months ago, my wife and I rescued an abandoned wild hatchling and nurtured it until it could go it alone. During this period, the bird often perched on my desk and watched me work. It was a tiny ambassador of the wild in my face, and it felt good. I suspect my work output was better for it.

I imagine the ideal workplace for the typically computerized worker bees of today would be outside, sitting or standing barefoot on green grass, surrounded by broad-leaf trees, serenaded by local birds. A nearby stream would be nice too. All this is not possible for everyone, of course, but ask yourself what is possible. What can you do?

One of my daughters, an attorney, works some days in a pop-up tent at the beach as a way to mitigate the pressures of her job. She says it is not logistically possible most days, but she ends the day feeling both productive and exhilarated when she can do it.

My other daughter, a university student, covered one of her bedroom/workplace walls with vintage art of plants and fungi. She’s not studying to be a botanist, but as the owner of a human brain, she made an intelligent home-décor choice.

Even with so much mobile technology available today, not everyone can work outside. But do what you can. Why not hold a meeting at a nearby park instead of a soul-sapping conference room? If you need to make a long audio phone call, why not do it while walking outside? Can you take your lunch break under a tree outside? Lean against a tree for a ten-minute break? Can you at least look at a tree for 60 seconds a few times per day? Some green is better than no green.

If you are hopelessly chained to an indoor desk without a view and cannot go to nature, then bring nature to you. There are several ways to accomplish this: indoor plants, desktop water fountains, nature-themed artwork, nature sounds, etc. YouTube and Spotify offer endless forest sounds, breaking waves, rain, wind, insects, and birds.

The takeaway message is that green is good. It’s good for your brain and, therefore, good for your work goals. Remember who you are: a human, a lifeform who still carries echoes of the forest and deep memories of the wild. Answer this call. Respond to the mind’s natural attraction to the natural world. Do all you can to nurture your brain’s need for nature so that it may serve you well.

References

Guy P. Harrison, At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life. (Prometheus Books, 2018)

Florence Williams, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, (W. W. Norton, 2017)

“Does Being around Trees Help People Feel Good?” Scientific American, July 20, 2015

Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (Random House, 2010), pp. 115–21. 29

David G. Pearson and Tony Craig, “The Great Outdoors? Exploring the Mental Health Benefits of Natural Environments,” Frontiers in Psychology, 5, no. 1178 (2014), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178

Gregory N. Bratman and J. Paul Hamilton, “Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, no. 28

Simone Kühn, Sandra Düzel, Peter Eibich, et al., “Associations between Geographical Properties and Brain Structure,” Scientific Reports, 7, no. 11920 (2017), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-12046-7

R. Kaplan, “The Role of Nature in the Context of the Workplace,” Landscape and Urban Planning, 26 (1993), pp. 193-201

R.K. Raanaas, K.H. Evensen, D. Rich, G. Sjøstrøm, G. Patil, “Benefits of Indoor Plants on Attention Capacity in an Office Setting,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31 (2011), pp. 99-105

S. Shibata, N. Suzuki, “Effects of the Foliage Plant on Task Performance and Mood,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22 (2002), pp. 265-272

R.M. Ryan, N. Weinstein, J. Bernstein, K.W. Brown, L. Mistretta, M. Gagné, “Vitalizing Effects of Being Outdoors and in Nature,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30 (2010), pp. 159-168

K. M. Beyer et al., “Exposure to Neighborhood Green Space and Mental Health: Evidence from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11, no. 3 (2014): 3453–72, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph110303453

Geoffrey H. Donovan et al., “The Relationship between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash Borer,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 44, no. 2 (February 2013): 139–45, http:// dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2012.09.066

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