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As modern life retreats from nature, science documents its healing powers

What medical, psychological and social researchers are learning about our “epidemic dislocation” from the outdoors.

Thanks to a confluence of demographics and technology, we’ve pivoted further away from nature than any generation before us. At the same time, we’re increasingly burdened by chronic ailments made worse by time spent indoors, from myopia and vitamin D deficiency to obesity, depression, loneliness and anxiety, among others. …

We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.

– Florence Williams, “The Nature Fix.”

This is not the kind of week, I admit, in which the average resident of our enduringly Arctic weather system longs to get outside more.

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On the other hand, it’s the traditional time for gathering ideas and listing resolutions for better living in the year to come.

So I urge you to take a look, while enjoying the great indoors, at Florence Williams’  recent and remarkable survey of scientific findings that embracing nature “makes us happier, healthier and more creative.”

Also, about the overlooked consequences of what Williams — an accomplished journalist with an environmental bent — terms “our epidemic dislocation from the outdoors.” These include the disorders mentioned above and a wide range of others – mostly mental but some physiological – with roots in the particular stresses of the modern, high-pressure, ever-accelerating lifestyle, which is pursued largely indoors and may be especially problematic for the youngest among us.

Quoting Ontario psychologist Elizabeth Nisbet’s conjecture that people stay indoors in part “because a chronic disconnection from nature causes them to underestimate its hedonic benefits,” Williams observes,

So we do things we crave that make us tetchy, like check our phones 1,500 times a week (no exaggeration, but I will point out that iPhone users spend 26 more minutes per day on their phone than Android users, which may be a good reason to marry an Android user), while often neglecting to do the things that bring us joy.

Yes, we’re busy. We’ve got responsibilities. But beyond that, we’re experiencing a mass generational amnesia enabled by urbanization and digital creep. American and British children today spend half as much time outdoors as their parents did. Instead, they spend up to seven hours a day on screens, not including time in school.

‘A scandalously new idea’

These notions are not exactly new, to be sure. Especially not new are observations about the special disconnect from nature among children of recent decades – a phenomenon well documented, for example, by Richard Louv a decade ago in “Last Child in the Woods.”

Louv is also one of Williams’ sources for the book, pointing out that researchers in medicine, psychology and the social sciences have been slow on the uptake.

“Studying the impacts of the natural world on the brain is actually a scandalously new idea,’ he tells her. “It should have been studied thirty to fifty years ago.”

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But the medical and social sciences are catching up, if haltingly. I’d guess I see a news item every month or so about a finding in this general area – most of them, alas, tending toward the narrow, tentative, repetitive or opaque.

The best part of what Williams has done, it seems to me, is a skillful sifting away of all the chaff; close behind is her deep examination of the wheat.

Appropriately, far less of her reporting takes place in a lab than in the field, and the field extends far and wide to places including:

  • Japan, for an inquiry into – no surprise here – “forest bathing,” the trending-everywhere therapy of stress relief through slowly opening the senses to woods and streams.
  • Sweden, to visit a special therapy garden with an all-weather glass greenhouse used to treat work-related stress so disabling that patients are on sick leave.
  • Scotland, where researchers are directing special attention to the poor, and particular deficits that being disconnected from nature visits on people of the Glasgow slums.
  • Singapore, whose 5 million residents live at the third-highest density on earth, and whose  planners are making nature part of urban infrastructure through green walls and vertical gardens (some of which produce food).
  • Finland, where park designs inspired by legends of ancient woodland spirits yield nature encounters of an intensity known as metsänpeitto, which translates as “covered by the forest” (and Williams suggests “is a little like forest bathing on acid”).

Brain change in backcountry

Considerable reporting takes place in the United States, too, including her participation in a field trip for students in an advanced psychology class called “Cognition in the Wild,” taught by David Strayer at the University of Utah.

Strayer believes that brain activity changes during encounters with nature. Indeed, he’s sure of it.  But he’s also a scientist, and anticipates objections that maybe watching National Geographic videos could have the same mental impact as camping for three days in the Utah backcountry east of Glen Canyon.

So along with the usual camp gear, he totes a portable EEG device — a bathing-cap-like contraption that Williams tests out. The aim, she writes, is to “find a biomarker that could show a brain under the influence of nature. If, as most seemed to agree, something is happening to our brains, is there some way to see the transformation?”

In Idaho, she tags along for an 81-mile paddle trip down the Salmon River toward a highly specific therapeutic goal: directing nature’s healing capacities at serious post-traumatic stress disorder.

That stretch of the Salmon, at the bottom of a forested gorge deeper than Grand Canyon, is also known as “The River of No Return,” a name applied by William Clark during his westward expedition with Meriwether Lewis.

It was through that gorge that another group of American veterans — all women, all scarred emotionally and physically by their service — descended in the summer of 2014. Like Clark, they were also on a voyage of discovery in the American wilds. I wanted to witness it.

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If one minute of gazing up at a eucalyptus tree makes people more generous, and three days makes them more socially connected, calm and inspired, what could a week unleash? Were the inverse-PTSD effects of awe real, and if so, would they show up in the brains that needed them most?

The chapter that resulted was excerpted by High Country News, and so you can read a fine long sample of “The Nature Fix,” without charge, by going here.

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Personal aside: I’ve not been writing in this space for a while, because of a disabling siege of sciatica that made it impossible to work at a desk or do much else, and ultimately required spine surgery. All better now, and I’m glad to be back.