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Ecotherapy — healing the mind with nature — is finally being put to the scientific test

A few years ago I wrote a short magazine article about ecopsychology, a relatively new field of academic study that melds psychology and ecology.

A few years ago I wrote a short magazine article about ecopsychology, a relatively new field of academic study that melds psychology and ecology. According to its growing number of practitioners, much of our psychological dis-ease is the result of our modern-day detachment from the natural world. The treatment? Ecotherapy — time spent with directly with nature.

At the time I thought the topic was interesting (I’ve often considered my garden my own personal stand-in for the psychiatrist’s couch), but that the science behind ecopsychology was a bit, um, mushy. Not a lot of evidence-based data.

Apparently, that’s changed. Or, rather, it’s beginning to change. As reported recently in ScienceLine, a project of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, a second generation of ecopsychologists “are mounting a new campaign to bring the scientific method” to their field. There’s now a peer-reviewed journal (Ecopsychology) and MIT Press is soon to publish a scholarly text on the topic.

Writes science writer Ferris Jabr:

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In the past few years, some ecopsychologists have made significant strides in adding scientific rigor to their field. What their research suggests so far is that even subtle interactions with nature provide a range of cognitive benefits, including elevated mood, enhanced memory, and decreased stress. Staring out a window at pretty scenery can significantly lower one’s heart rate, for example, and some studies even indicate that hospital windows with views of nature can facilitate healing. What’s more, nature provides measurably greater benefits than both manmade environments and simulations of nature. Research demonstrates that walking through the city can tax our attention, whereas a part restores our concentration and can even improve our performance on tests of memory.

Of course, not everybody is convinced — yet. Here’s Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld’s cautious comment to Fabr: “My impression as an outsider is that ecopsychology is a promising but preliminary field. I wouldn’t say it’s conclusive, but there are certainly many suggestions that nature may be helpful for short-term mental health. There’s no question it can have positive effects on mood. I think claims that nature may be helpful are reasonable, but claims that our technological society or distance from nature are massively detrimental to mental health go beyond the current data.”

What form is this new empirical work in ecopsychology taking? Here’s an example, as reported by Fabr:

In a 2008 study at the University of Michigan, Marc Berman asked some participants to memorize digits and recite them in reverse order. Then he had one group of participants walk through an arboretum, while others traveled crowded city streets. Afterwards, the subjects completed the digit task again. Those who’d strolled through the arboretum performed with higher attention and memory than those who walked in the city. The arboretum-walkers recited an average of 1.5 digits more on their second test than on their first, compared with an average of 0.5 digits improvement for participants who had been exposed to the urban environment.

Apparently, that was the first ecopsychology study to make its way into a mainstream peer-reviewed psychology journal (Psychological Science). Others have followed.

Getting some ecopsychologists — particularly those who have been in the field for a long time — to embrace rigorous scientific methods may be a challenge, however.  I cringed when I read this comment by a Maine ecotherapist: “For me the science is not a critical piece. I’ve seen the changes … my patients go through, and they are real.”

Maybe they’re real. Maybe they’re not. But one thing’s for sure: There’s no way of knowing without good science.

You can read Fabr’s ScienceLine article here.