Why Natural Landscape Is Calming

We know that nature is good for us but are only beginning to understand why.

Posted Apr 24, 2019

Providing green spaces for cities may be an investment in good health. That is because natural environments make us feel calmer and less anxious. Understanding why is important for psychologists.

The fly fisherman, or fisherwoman, experiences the environment of the trout by walking in water. There is a meaningful connection that reduces blood pressure and induces physiological, and psychological calm. While those who do not fish often have trouble understanding this experience, it happens to everyone to some extent when they leave city buildings, pavement, and traffic, behind. Researchers found that exposure to green places reduced blood pressure temporarily.

There are numerous reasons why this may occur.

The Visual System

One relates to the functioning of the visual system. Different colors can affect our moods. Longer wavelength colors, like red, are arousing whereas shorter wavelengths, like green and blue, are calming (1).

In the past, institutions were painted green on the premise that this is a calming color. (Researchers found that pink is actually a more calming color than green, prompting its use in holding cells (2).)

The preponderance of green hues in many natural landscapes could have the effect of calming us down simply by virtue of the way that our visual system works.

While this is certainly possible, it is not a satisfactory explanation in itself because it does not address the issue of why green might be more calming than the color of pavement, or tarmac.

A more plausible possibility is that natural landscapes are calming because they have positive associations with pleasant experiences. They represent escape from noise and crowding.

Associations with Leisure Activity

This possibility is bolstered by the fact that natural environments are often associated with positive experiences in everyday life. During our time off work, we may spend plenty of time outdoors, whether it is a backyard barbecue, a hike in the woods, or a vacation spent in calm and peaceful natural scenery.

Each of these experiences is likely to pair natural landscapes with occasions that provide peace and relaxation. If so, the natural landscape is the conditioned stimulus in a Pavlovian experiment. Because it is often associated with calmness, it elicits a relaxation response along with lowering of blood pressure, and physiological arousal.

This conclusion is reasonable but it is unlikely to satisfy the aesthetes and artists among us who would insist that green scenery offers uniquely pleasing kinds of beauty that elevate our mood for aesthetic reasons while constructed urban environments often seem harsh and displeasing.

Aesthetic Consideration of Natural Versus Artificial Scenes

The fact that natural scenery induces calmness and relaxation could reflect the fact that cities are associated with hustle and bustle, with working, with time urgency, with noise, and with chaos. However, aesthetes would argue that natural landscapes are intrinsically pleasing and offer much more than the mere absence of unpleasant experiences and connotations. (Some evolutionary psychologists would argue that we are calmer because we experience environments more consistent with those of our ancestors but such views are speculative and suffer from a dearth of plausible scientific mechanisms).

Arguably, the beauty of natural scenery arises because the plant communities in a scene are inherently ordered and composed whether it is a mountainside, a grassland, a forest, or a desert. For instance, trees must conform to each other's shape as they compete for light.

Even landscapes without vegetation, such as rocky shores, may be aesthetically pleasing because they are visual essays in movement where the movement of the waves echoes the topography of molten rocks.

Whatever the underlying reasons, all natural landscapes may evoke a relaxation response that is, unfortunately, often absent from constructed environments. This means that urban landscapes are generally not good at echoing the beauty of natural scenes, or even at including enough plant life to soften their harsh impact.

Why do we feel more comfortable in natural landscapes? One possibility is that we feel at home in the landscape in a way that is more difficult in a city. If we feel at home, our defenses are down and we can relax.

Can we be more relaxed by thinking about our surroundings – or by losing ourselves in them?

Mindfulness or Mindlessness

This issue belongs in the current debate over mindfulness. Most mindfulness proponents argue that we are most relaxed, or healthier, or more productive, when we focus our attention on the current moment rather than thinking about what has happened or what the future holds.

To be more specific, when we are exposed to natural landscapes, do we become more mindful of our surroundings? Or do we lose ourselves completely in the experience? When the angler immerses themselves in the environment of the fish by wading in a trout stream, do they leave their anxious selves behind in the urban environment? Or do they become exquisitely mindful of their current setting? Or is it both?

Reference

1 Stone, N. J., & English, A. J. (1998). Task type, posters, and workspace color on mood, satisfaction, and performance. Journal of Environ1nental Psychology, 18 (2), 175-185

2 Alter, A. (2012).Drunk Tank Pink: And other unexpected forces that shape how we think, feel, and behave. New York, NY: Penguin Press.