One of the most beautiful things about nature is its ability to trigger our well-being and wellbeing. Natural beauty has been linked to a wide range of health benefits from increased creativity, to our capacity to feel empathy, and to our ability to cope with stress. In this article, Dr. Alan Logan talks to us about how we can improve our lives by improving our natural environment in our daily lives.
We all have opinions about what is healthy and what is not, but when it comes to nature, what is the real truth? Scientists have long been trying to pinpoint what may be the key to making us live longer, happier and healthier lives.
Dr. Alan Logan, a naturopath and author of Your Brain on Nature, thinks that getting outside is excellent for both brain and body. In today’s society, engaging our old human “biophilia” — or love of the natural world — may be crucial to our well-being.
I’m sitting in front of a computer, wearing headphones like an auditory umbilical cord and staring at a pixelated blank on an LCD monitor. In a cognitive state of left-brain verbal-mathematical processing, I’m crouched over a keyboard like Quasimodo, moving nothing except my fingertips. I’m a floating hunk of thinky frontal cortex at the moment, tethered by a white earphone umbilicus and some finger tendons.
My workplace is dimly lit; the only window faces a brick wall, and I’ve swapped out my warm incandescent bulbs for energy-efficient fluorescents, which have the dazzling atmosphere of a late-night bus terminal toilet.
Dr. Alan Logan, a naturopath and author of the upcoming book Your Brain On Nature, talks to me about how important the natural environment is for human health.
I’m not blind to the irony. Dr. Logan, for example.
“Even if you have a television screen that shows a nature scene, it won’t give you the same bodily impact as being outside,” he says. So my sunset Mac screen saver isn’t going to make it?
He says, “Not really.” “It’s not much better than a white wall.”
He outlines an experiment in which three groups of employees in ordinarily windowless offices were given the option of undertaking intellectually taxing tasks while gazing at one of three things:
- a white wall;
- a plasma TV with a view of the outdoors; and
- a window that looked out into the same external view
With a unique spin! The plasma television screen was created to resemble a window, complete with draperies.
For 16 weeks, researchers monitored the workers’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being. As a result, the most calming view was through a glass window. Participants became more relaxed when they looked out the window.
The plasma TV, on the other hand, received the same score as the blank wall. So much for “photorealistic image quality.”
The researchers in this TV study were concerned about “environmental generational amnesia” that could occur as a result of younger people spending their days staring at screens rather than playing outside, and they described deep human “biophilia,” or love of nature, as “a fundamental, genetically based human need and propensity to affiliate with ‘life and lifelike processes.’”
“Ironically, science is leading the charge on behalf of nature,” adds Dr. Logan.
Photographs from the plasma television experiment
Our former selves
But why do we value nature so much? Most crucially, we’re twenty-first-century individuals trapped in old bodies.
“Let’s put this in the context of ancestral health,” Dr. Logan says. “Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers.
“Thinking about where we came from is central to my entire message in the book. Homo sapiens has existed for almost 2 million years. Our genus has been learning how to survive in nature for about 2 million years. Within nature, we learned how to seek out environments that are beneficial to us. What happened to the water? What happened to the fruits and berries?
“It appears reasonable that we would be drawn to specific locales and niches that support human health. This is true for our dietary consumption, physical activity, and the location of our physical activity. To stay alive, we had to walk or run. Survival was the prize.”
Natural cycles, sights, sounds, and locations are all wired into our bodies, brains, and emotions.
Fear and aversion
And this wiring runs all the way down to our brain’s core. The anterior cingulate and the insula, two areas of the brain involved with emotional stability and wellness, as well as self-awareness and a “bridge” between sensation and thought, are activated by natural surroundings. Modern metropolitan surroundings, on the other hand, activate the primal fear circuits.
“What finally pushed me to write about this subject in 2010 was functional MRI research [a “live action” brain scan that can show which parts of the brain are active during a given task] showing that brain firing really diverged depending on what people were seeing, even if these images were coming at them quickly before they had time to consider,” says Dr. Logan.
Scenes of greenery and nature were interpreted as relaxing and pleasant, while scenes of urban imagery — “the simply built environment,” as Dr. Logan puts it — were interpreted as potentially unpleasant.
He insists that it doesn’t end there. “Through evolution, we also learnt that nature has the ability to kill, maim, sting, and bite us.” Even if they’ve never seen a spider or snake, infants have an innate phobia of creepy crawlies. Something in our brain recognizes what is frightening or possibly dangerous and activates our protection mechanisms.
The difficulty of the knowledge society
Dr. Logan has been following the studies in this field for a long time, and The Brain Diet: The Connection Between Nutrition, Mental Health, and Intelligence is one of his older works.
“I believe this basic stress reaction is extremely relevant for knowledge workers,” Dr. Logan claims. We’re continuously bombarded with sensory cues and pressures that force our brains to stay on high alert.
“We live in a world where we are constantly distracted. The issue for knowledge workers is to stay focused and avoid all of the distractions that surround us, whether it’s an email that we opted to open — then it takes us 24 minutes to get back on task — or diversions on a screen, or driving in traffic, or anything. This is the Distraction Age.
“We’re adrift in a sea of rapidly changing data. It is quite taxing on the brain to have to filter out distractions throughout the day. The concept of’multitasking’ is absurd. The fMRI results do not support it. Multitasking is stressful.
“An unbelievable amount of cognitive weariness has resulted as a result of this. We’re exerting a lot of work and energy in order to suppress our natural responses.”
This isn’t surprising if you’ve ever tried to find the “willpower” to exercise or stick to a diet plan.
You’ve experienced the mental exhaustion of continually suppressing your natural desires in a modern environment when routines, cues, and institutions almost march us into lethargy and gluttony. You’re ready to stop a dreary early-morning gym routine that involves pushing yourself to tread monotonously on a mill by the end of a stressful day at work, or by the second week of a dreary early-morning gym program that requires forcing yourself to tread monotonously on a mill.
Dr. Logan proposes that it makes great sense. “Trying to accomplish things while limiting natural responses or filtering out competing impulses is like driving with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake.”
“I’m not anti-technology,” he claims, “but we as a society need to consider how pervasive our screens are.” And stress is a major factor in the consumption of so-called comfort foods. When we’re stressed, we don’t eat broccoli and kale.”
Nature is a healer.
Shirin-yoku, which translates to “bathing in the forest air,” is a Japanese phrase. Time spent in natural settings, such as a forest, has an impact on a variety of stress markers and physiology. Stress hormones and heart rate are reduced, and the immune system and mood are improved. According to one study, “shirin-yoku can successfully calm both people’s bodies and spirits.”
Dr. Logan agrees. “Nature has the ability to undo any stress.”
Japan’s experts are leading the research drive, which is unsurprising given the country’s traditional design, which seamlessly combines indoor and outdoor environments. However, it is catching on in North America. The scientific evidence is piling up like large fluffy snowflakes.
Researchers at Carlton University in Ottawa, which is engulfed in winter for six months of the year, contrasted going outdoors in green spaces versus traveling via weatherproof underground tunnels. While those who walked underground were spared the season’s vagaries, those who walked outside felt — and performed — better in terms of mood and thought.
According to Dr. Logan, “people report they feel better in nature.” “These investigations only confirm what we previously knew,” says the author.
Participants in the Shirin-yoku research
Your workout in the great outdoors
It can be difficult to motivate yourself to workout at times. And sometimes, even once we get started, we don’t feel particularly energised. Dr. Logan is aware of your situation.
“Whether you’re aiming to gain or retain lean body mass or shed fat, motivation is unquestionably the biggest roadblock to exercise. The stumbling block is the unfavorable component of the situation. You are aware of the discomfort. You become aware of your tiredness. You get into the mindset of these exercise impediments.”
Green exercise, on the other hand, he claims, builds and keeps motivation because it takes place outside in natural settings. “It improves your mood and takes you ‘out of your head.’”
Not only that, but exercising in a natural setting can help you perform better. In one early study, beginner runners were matched on a woodland jogging path to a simple open track. Runners were just instructed to run at their own pace. In the woods, the runners were speedier.
“The runners felt better in the wooded setting. They felt as if they were on the outside looking in. They lacked the perceptions of exhaustion and discomfort. They were completely unconcerned with their side stitch. The runners in the woods, indeed, ran faster. Their finish timings were significantly faster than those of the open-track runners.”
The results were the same when re-tested on a treadmill for runners. “Outdoors, people just run faster.”
How do you go natural?
According to Dr. Logan, it doesn’t take much to gain the benefits of “your brain on nature.” “Even 20 minutes in nature, away from your normal setting, can substantially improve your mental outlook and reduce your stress perceptions. That alone is sufficient to improve your brain, focus, and creativity.
“Experiencing nature allows you to let go of inhibitions. Being in nature, in green space, is cognitively rejuvenating simply because you are no longer pressing the brakes.”
Putting your brain on a natural diet can help you improve your nutrition, activity, and general wellness, according to Dr. Logan.
- When and wherever you can, get outside. Even little amounts of nature can be beneficial. Even sitting close to a plant is a step forward.
- Stay in the moment. Now is the moment of nature. Dr. Logan explains that ruminating on the past causes sadness, while ruminating on the future causes worry. “Nature provides us the gift of being present.”
- Keep your eyes peeled. Dr. Logan explains, “It’s really all about awareness.” “Mindfulness is the link between everything, whether it’s the health advantages of exercise, higher cognition, or eating well. Mindfulness is defined as remaining present in the present moment. Mindfulness is aided by nature.”
- Wherever possible, seek out your natural surroundings. Dr. Logan smiles, “It was a little strange that researchers for the shirin-yoku studies literally had to take a high-speed train to get to the remote areas they employed.” “However, most of us still have access to green space. Green space may still be found in most of our better cities. Central Park is in New York, and Stanley Park is in Vancouver. Look for your green.
- Participate and lobby for the preservation of green spaces. Dr. Logan says, “This developing data should indicate to all of us that we should be taking this quite seriously.” “This isn’t a hippie message in the least. We must conserve and protect these natural spaces as our cities grow. It’s a crucial lesson for city inhabitants, perhaps even more so because they’re surrounded by them.
- Please pass it on. “Younger generations will have no idea what was formerly there. You can’t appreciate the depths of it if you don’t know. You’ll never be able to comprehend all of nature’s advantages. That’s a really risky location to visit.” As a result, take your children outside with you. As a family, go hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities. Leaving the Nintendo and laptop at home is not a good idea.
- Instead of taking shortcuts, go for the actual thing. “Virtual nature is great, but it doesn’t really work,” Dr. Logan explains. “It’s similar to the idea of exercise or a whole dinner in a pill in the 1950s or 1960s.” So go outside, and I mean truly go outside. Also, investigate if you can get a window installed in your office.
- Don’t wait for the “ideal time” or “ideal location.” Remember, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only incorrect clothing,” as the farmers say. Only a few doors separate you from the outside world.
- Do whatever you can to help. At lunch, I went for a 5-minute walk. A commute to work on a bicycle. On the weekend, go for a hike. Surfing. In the park, we’re playing catch. Taking a dip in the lake. A cross-country ski journey in the winter. Sitting under a tree in the backyard. Just get outside, whatever you can. Your ancient mind and body will be grateful.
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