Your Heart and Brain on Nature: a Scientific Update
Recent research is clearly showing that getting out into nature is good for us.
Posted Mar 02, 2016
"If we don't always start from Nature we certainly come to her in our hour of need." (Henry Miller, 1957)
There's a lot of interest about how getting out into nature is good for us (please see, for example, "Your Brain and Health in Nature: Rewilding Is Good For Us" and links therein). One of my favorite books is Eva Selhub's Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature's Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality (the Kindle edition can be seen here). Researchers from a number of disciplines are interested in this general topic, including conservation psychologists such as Psychology Today writer Susan Clayton, and anthrozoologists who focus more on human-animal interactions.
Along these lines, I just read a very interesting and informative essay, available online, by Jill Suttie called "How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier, and More Creative." She begins:
"But, even though I’ve always believed that hiking in nature had many psychological benefits, I’ve never had much science to back me up…until now, that is. Scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and increase our attention capacity, creativity, and our ability to connect with other people.
'People have been discussing their profound experiences in nature for the last several 100 years—from Thoreau to John Muir to many other writers,' says researcher David Strayer, of the University of Utah. 'Now we are seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally more healthy when we are interacting with nature.'"
Some trends from recent scientific research are clear, and Ms. Suttie presents them as follows:
1. Being in nature decreases stress
2. Nature makes you happier and less brooding
3. Nature relieves attention fatigue and increases creativity
4. Nature may help you to be kind and generous
5. Nature makes you "feel more alive"
Concerning number 5, Ms. Suttie writes:
"Both Strayer and Bratman say we need a lot more careful research to tease out these effects before we come to any definitive conclusions.
Still, the research does suggest there’s something about nature that keeps us psychologically healthy, and that’s good to know…especially since nature is a resource that’s free and that many of us can access by just walking outside our door. Results like these should encourage us as a society to consider more carefully how we preserve our wilderness spaces and our urban parks.
And while the research may not be conclusive, Strayer is optimistic that science will eventually catch up to what people like me have intuited all along—that there’s something about nature that renews us, allowing us to feel better, to think better, and to deepen our understanding of ourselves others.
'You can’t have centuries of people writing about this and not have something going on,' says Strayer. 'If you are constantly on a device or in front of a screen, you’re missing out on something that’s pretty spectacular: the real world.'”
I recognize that not everyone agrees with some of the research that is being done, that not everyone will necessarily benefit from getting outside, and that there may be a few individuals who suffer from these sorts of experiences. Nonetheless, I found Ms. Suttie's essay to be balanced and incredibly informative, and I highly recommend it not only to researchers but also to everyone who likes to be out in nature or is pondering spending more time outdoors. If being out in nature makes you feel good, then just do it regardless of what "the data" say. I can't think of any reasons not to do so, and who knows what the skeptics might discover.
Henry Miller, 1957, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. New Directions Publishing Company, New York, p. 93
Jill Suttie, 1984, Wilderness: A medium for improving psychological health. The Environmentalist, 4, 295-299.
The teaser image and the one above is me with a cormorant in the Everglades National Park who just stood there as I told him how lucky I was to meet him, and that he had made my day.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)