What Nature Does for You

Also published here.

‘I took a walk in the woods and emerged taller than the trees’ – H.D. Thoreau

In the early months of autumn last year, I once camped out in the woods just west of Utrecht. I packed a gas stove, some dried oats and a tea bag, and hid my bike in a bush; I set-up camp alongside the Kromme Rijn, the small canal that snakes south-westerly out of the city. I awoke early the next morning, as you usually do when camping. Shivering and heavy-eyed, I unzipped my dew-peppered tent to the sight of the canal. It was bathed in the dim orange glow of the rising sun, and a thin mist was hugging the water, rolling up onto the grassy banks at each side. A duck glided smoothly across the water, peckish, looking for breakfast; a bird flew softly overhead. The forest was rising, and I with it.

I shuffled inch by inch into the canal, my naked body tensed and goose-pimpled. The water was as cold as I had imagined. A few joggers ran past on the opposite bank, nodding good morning to me, confused but pretending not to be. I stretched forward, and submerged myself entirely into the dark green ice bath. Heart became loud, breath slow, feet numb.

Ten minutes later I was crouched on the bank, warming my hands above a pan of cinnamon porridge bubbling below. The sun was higher now, the whole forest more alive. Dew drops slid lazily from the tips of brown leaves in seasonal decay. I turned off the stove and the hiss of gas stopped. I looked around. My entire world was then, for the next hour or so, suffused with a slowness, a clarity and sense of calm. The gentle trickling of the canal seemed to have massaged cluttered thoughts out of my mind and, surrounded by quacks, chirps and rustlings all around, I felt small amidst the woodland community. The air felt cool, bright and fresh – any traces of tiredness had completely dissolved.

And though it was hardly an isolated wilderness – rather a popular wooded area, with designated paths and in which rangers occasionally patrol – the experience it offered serves at least as a reminder of that which could be at risk by the end of this century. The stream could grow contaminated, and the land subsumed by the demands of industrial agriculture. And with this, the dissolution of such deeply affirming and human moments.

But these concerns are not only of sentimental relevance. With a growing body of research into the psychological effects of nature, we are now increasingly able to understand the natural environment – and by extension the climate crisis – through this new lens of brain and behavioural science. Now we know that environmental degradation intrudes onto not just sentimental concepts of ‘peace’ and ‘simplicity’, but also quite concretely onto our psychological and emotional well-being.

Research at Stanford University found that, between experiment participants who walked for 90 minutes through a leafy park and those who walked aside a multi-lane highway, the former returned with significantly less blood flow to the part of the brain known as the sub genual prefrontal cortex. Activity in this area is associated with brooding and rumination – cyclical patterns of negative thought such as insecurity, doubt and depression. Additionally, psychology professor Marc Berman at the University of Chicago found that ‘an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-percent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt’. In monetary terms this equates to an increase of around ten thousand dollars per household, or the feeling of being seven years younger. Increased tree cover is also linked to lower cardio-metabolic conditions, and improvements in attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).

It is unknown what precisely about the added trees causes the beneficial effect. Possibilities include better quality of air, the encouragement to exercise, or the reminder of life’s fundamental resources. But the results are nonetheless significant, and studies such as these are starting to influence the designs of urban planners, incorporating more curved lines, less predictability, and higher colour saturation to imitate the aesthetics of nature. This aims to introduce the restorative effects of a natural environment into a typical urban setting.

Such attention-based research draws on the theories of nineteenth-century philosopher and psychologist William James, who made a distinction between voluntary and involuntary forms of attention. Involuntary, directed forms of attention occur from the top down: advertisements, car horns and flashing television screens seem to grab our conscious attention in an intense way. This is psychologically fatiguing. Features of natural environments, on the other hand, are often ‘softly fascinating’, and allow us to attend to them while at the same time being free to day dream. Think of a waterfall, or a tree swaying in the wind. This form of attention can be restorative.

Psychological research into the effects of nature on the brain may even go on to help inform public policy. Now we know that it can have concrete and immediate effects on well-being, we might start to reconsider the structure of the modern city as something less rigid and monochromatic and instead something more colourful, chaotic and unpredictable

As I was reminded on that memorable morning next to Utrecht’s Komme Rijn, our response to nature is subtle yet profound. Teachers at ‘Forest Schools’ world wide are well aware of this, and have moved their teaching spaces to nearby parks and woodland. The children learn experientially and through direct contact with the natural world. Their emotional intelligence has been shown empirically to improve in this way – they become more self-motivated, emotionally flexible and optimistic.

Climate change threatens not just trees, aquifers and top-soil, but also our emotional well-being. While sentimental arguments are of course appealing, their rhetorical force grows less necessary as we begin to draw strong connections between vaguely-defined environmental emotional states with real, measured neurological correlatives.

Indeed, the challenge over the coming century may be not just to remain fed and sheltered, but simply to remain sane.

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