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Your Brain on Nature

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, 304 pages

By Roger Lohr

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams provides the most compelling argument to date for people to spend more time outdoors in nature based on an increasing amount of biological, psychological and medicinal scientific evidence.

Over the years, efforts have been made to quantify nature’s impact on mood, well-being, cognitive functions (remember, plan, create) and sociability. The biophilic hypothesis involves lowering human stress, boosting mental health, restoring attention, empathy, and cognitive clarity. Nature also affects a social component, like the feeling that is shared among people who spend time together outdoors, or people who perform exceeding acts of kindness in the aftermath of a severe environmental event such as a tornado, earthquake, firestorm, and such.

The recommended prescription for getting outdoors in a “nature pyramid” includes quick doses and longer spells in wild places. Specifically, people should:

  • Get out in nature nearby on a daily basis for some minutes to distress, find focus and lighten mental fatigue,

  • Spend weekly outings at parks or waterways for an hour or so, and

  • Go on monthly weekend excursions to natural areas to bolster immune systems.

The top of the pyramid includes annual or biyearly, multi-day wilderness trips. More significantly, such wilderness experiences are invaluable for adolescents or following grief or trauma.

Williams traveled the world over to investigate and experience research on nature’s impact on humans. In Japan, she saw “forest bathing” on a sensory walk in the woods on one of the 48 forest therapy trails in the country. In Scotland, they call it “eco therapy.” She met with a Korean professor of “social forestry” who introduced her to the world’s only college degree for forest healing. In South Korea from 2010 to 2013, visits to the forest increased from 9.4 million to 12.7 million, while in the U.S.A. there was a decline of 25% during the same time period.

The evidence (there are 20 pages of cited notes and credits) about nature’s impact involves details with cortisol levels, sympathetic nerve activity, heart rate decline, and hemoglobin in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The book is replete with that type of information, but most people may not be familiar with such neurological details.

One of nature’s benefits are delivered through sound – a bubbling brook, bird tweets in the early morning, the leaves moving in the wind, and so on. But the U.S. Park Service claims that 83% of land in the lower 48 states sits within 3,500 feet of a road, and that within 20 years, 90% of the population will be close enough to hear at least one of the projected 30,000 airplane flights per day.

In Finland, 95% of the population spends time recreating outdoors and 50% ride bicycles. It is easy to access forests because 74% of the country is covered by trees and there are 2 million summer cottages for a population of 5 million Finns, who claim the focus on nature correlates to reduced health care costs and mental and physical fitness.

Williams visited Singapore, where 70% of the population lives within 400 meters of green space. The government in Singapore allocates 0.6% of the national budget to develop scenery and greenery.

There are successful nature programs to help people who suffer with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Outward Bound did a study on a therapeutic adventure program showing nine to 19% of participating veterans who had PTSD improved. Williams includes a discussion about ADHD programs where 6.4 million kids are diagnosed and half of them are taking medication for the malady.

Isn’t it about time that more therapists, doctors, teachers, and parents prescribe getting outdoors more often?

Roger Lohr of Lebanon, NH, who owns and edits XCSkiResorts.com, has published articles and promotional topics on snow sports, sustainability, and trails in regional and national media. He is also the Recreational Editor for Green Energy Times.

 

Captions: Mascoma Lake from Enfield, NH and the Lupine field scenery from Sugar Hill, NH. Courtesy photos: Roger Lohr

 

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