English writer Edward Forster in 1909 wrote the disturbing story “The Machine Stops”. He painted a picture of the future: people spend their whole lives in isolated underground rooms, communicating with each other through devices that resemble modern smartphones. Everyone worships the Machine, which provides everything necessary for survival, but prevents personal communication and contact with nature.
Hmm . It would seem that this is just a fantasy, but here’s the reality: a survey of two thousand Canadians conducted in 2018 showed that 87% of respondents in nature feel happier, healthier and more productive. But three-quarters of them (75%) said it was easier for them to stay indoors no matter what. So even without the almighty Machine, we have become an indoor view.
Obviously, communicating with nature is useful, but we had no idea how much. Scientists have accumulated a lot of data confirming that nature can become an effective and completely free cure for many diseases of the 21st century. Here are some facts from the book Brainwash about what happens while we walk.
Nature boosts our mood with the help of the sun. When its rays fall on the skin, the body produces vitamin D, which is important for many biological processes, including directly related to the ability of the brain to produce serotonin. Vitamin D deficiency can contribute to the development of depression. To improve mood, drugs are most often prescribed that provide an increase in the amount of serotonin in the body. However, there are studies suggesting that simply increasing your vitamin D levels is also great for improving your mood. Sunlight makes this possible.
Nature has an anti-inflammatory effect. This conclusion has been confirmed by many studies. A 2012 experiment measured differences in markers of stress and inflammation in the blood of college students sent to either the woods or the city. Before the experiment, laboratory data showed no significant difference between the two groups. But after two nights in the forest or in the city, everything began to look completely different.
In the “forest” group, the level of inflammatory markers TNF-α (an increase in the level causes alertness in relation to oncology, clinical depression, psoriasis, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.) and interleukin-6 (an increase is associated with cancer and sudden death from senile diseases) dropped significantly compared to the “urban” group.
In the “forest” group, the level of both endothelin-1, a marker of inflammation in vascular diseases, and cortisol, which is involved in the destruction of connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, was lowered.
The brain starts to work better
One 2012 study involved a group of 56 men and women doing creative work. The experimenters found that “four days of immersion in nature and a corresponding separation from multimedia and technology increase the productivity [of solving creative problems] by 50%.”
The positive impact of nature on the ability to focus and concentrate has long been recorded. There is even a theory of attention recovery developed by psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in an era of rapid technological development, increased indoor activity, and concerns about the lack of contact with nature. The Kaplanov theory hypothesizes that nature not only sharpens our ability to focus and concentrate, but also helps to restore attention after a waste of mental energy – for example, after sleepless nights on some project.
Nature regenerates the brain by strengthening the very connections needed for focus and concentration—located in the prefrontal cortex.
A 2016 study looked at the mental health impact of “islands of nature” in the workplace. Flowers in pots and artistic photographs were considered such islands. The hypothesis about the positive impact of the elements of nature was confirmed: there was a decrease in depression and anxiety, as well as greater job satisfaction.
It’s good to know that even a simple scene or a small plant can make a big difference. However, don’t be fooled – an exotic wall calendar is not the equivalent of a real getaway. And there are no substitutes for fresh air, sunlight and wild vegetation.
While walking through the forest, you actively inhale not only oxygen, but also the essential oils of plants (like in a SPA, only for free). A study examining the effects of inhaling pine nut oil vapor found that it increased the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system, responsible for relaxation, balances the sympathetic system associated with stress (“fight or flight”). Parasympathetic activity (and it is expressed, for example, in the reaction of the pupils to light or in intestinal peristalsis) also increased under the influence of the smell of cypress oil.
Since 2010, studies have been conducted on the effects of aromas on the functioning of the human brain, and the results have been stunning. The mere inhalation of a certain aroma affects brain waves and brain activity: there is a shift from those associated with disease and cognitive decline to those associated with health and well-being. How is this possible? It turns out that odorous components are able to overcome the blood-brain barrier (a barrier that traps potentially dangerous substances) and act on the receptors of the central nervous system.
A 2016 review of several studies states: “Olfactory stimulation leads to rapid changes in physiological parameters such as blood pressure, muscle tension, pupillary dilation, skin temperature, pulse rate, and brain activity.” The article details these connections, explaining the ways in which different scents — from bunches of fresh lavender and chamomile to incense and essential oils — affect different parts of the brain.
In another experiment, they traced the relationship between the amount of time that people spent in a landscaped area and the risk of developing depression. The authors did not discover the Americas – a significantly lower risk of depression was found in those who spent at least five hours a week in nature. A natural conclusion followed: “Nature, even the closest to us, offers tremendous potential for an easily accessible and cost-effective approach to disease prevention.”
Large-scale pictures of nature inspire us with awe. And it affects our behavior. Dr. Paul Piff ‘s team has demonstrated that instilling “awe” leads to increased ethical decision-making, generosity, and prosociality of action. Initiating this feeling by visiting a clump of tall trees resulted in “an improvement in prosocial behavior and a decrease in the feeling that everyone owes you.”
In 2012, researchers confirmed that this feeling can be measured. The awe made the participants feel like they had more time than when experiencing other emotions. Members of the same group admitted that a sense of awe led them to volunteer, and they also “more pronouncedly preferred experiences to material objects.” The scientists concluded: “The feeling of awe binds people to the present, [causing] to perceive life as more satisfying than at other times.”
Another series of experiments, conducted by Dr. Piff , studied how the beauty of nature changes the worldview of people. The researchers found that “exposure to more beautiful nature (vs. less beautiful) made participants more generous and trusting,” “exposure to more beautiful plants (vs. . This study proved once again that nature has an impact on measurable prosocial behavior. Enjoying the sunset or traveling (ideally not alone), we literally become improved versions of ourselves.
You become healthier
In 1984, Dr. Roger Ulrich published a landmark article in the medical journal Science, “View from the window can affect recovery after surgery.” Dr. Ulrich studied the history of operated patients at the Pennsylvania Hospital. All patients were in the same wards, only one of the rooms overlooked a brick wall, and trees grew under other windows. Patients in wards with a view of the vegetation recovered and were discharged earlier, and they needed less painkillers. Their caregivers were one-third less likely to leave remarks like “upset and crying” and “need more encouragement” in their case histories.
In many diseases, treating the acute phase is only part of the battle, and after surgery, a stroke, a heart attack, or fighting cancer, the rehabilitation process is important. This is where nature walks can play a huge role.
you become happier
In 2014, a meta-analysis was conducted, summarizing the results of several studies regarding the connection of nature with happiness. The experiments covered about 8,500 people. The researchers concluded: “Those who are more connected to nature tend to have more positive experiences, are more energetic and feel more satisfied with life compared to those who are less connected to nature.”
In another original study, researchers asked 20,000 participants about their mood at random intervals and then compared information about their location. To determine the latter, a GPS navigation system was used. An analysis of nearly a million responses showed that people felt much happier when their GPS coordinates were determined near landscaping or in a natural environment, rather than among urban areas.
you prolong your life
On a more global level, scientists have studied how nature affects life expectancy and have come up with startling findings. A massive 2008 study published in The Lancet covered 40 million English people. Residents were classified by how “green” their environment is – that is, literally by the number of green spaces within a radius of several kilometers from their homes. The inhabitants of the greenest areas were characterized by the lowest mortality rate from diseases of the circulatory system; in addition, they live longer than people with less green environments.
Another major study in 2017 covered 1.7 million Canadians. Scientists have found that people with a lot of greenery around their houses have a 10% lower risk of premature death. Another large-scale experiment analyzed data on 4.2 million Swiss people. The conclusion turned out to be similar: greening in places of residence reduces the risk of premature death, even when pollution and other harmful effects on the environment are controlled.
When you leave home, you return home
Nature is what unites us. We left it, it is our first home. For millions of years, our genes have evolved under the influence of nature, so it is not surprising that time outside the stone jungle is good for us.
Spending time in nature is one of the easiest things to do for your health and happiness. You just need to get out of the house.
Nature doesn’t just surround us; we are also nature. Our organisms are microcosms of a vast ecosystem. Our cellular structure, down to the structure of DNA, reflects the perfection of mother nature, but we also give shelter to trillions of microorganisms – they live inside us and on us, find housing among our cells. These microorganisms have been keeping us company for millions of years. We need to recognize beauty. We must recognize the surprising and health-enhancing power of the world around us.
We hope this article has inspired you to go for a walk today .