• Soothing the Mind in the Natural World

    landscapeYou have to care for your mind’s health like you care for your body’s health.  While it’s easy to name the things that you can do to improve your physical health, often less obvious are the things that you can do to improve your mental health.  Spending time in nature is one very easy and effective way to revitalize your mind.  Nature has the power to restore our mental well being the same way sleep, water, or healthy food can restore our physical bodies.

    In recent decades a number of scientific studies have explored the restorative benefits of nature.  According to Alan C. Logan, graduate of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, and coauthor of Your Brain On Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality:

    Sophisticated brain-imaging techniques show that when healthy adults view nature scenes rich in vegetation, areas of the brain associated with emotional stability, empathy, and love are more active. These same pathways are activated when a person looks at pictures of a loved one. In contrast, viewing scenes of the built urban environment produced a significant increase in activity of the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear and stress.” 

    For many of us these results are intuitively obvious and reflect our natural affinity for things that are vital.  Biophilia, a term popularized by Edward O. Wilson in his bookof the same name, describes this instinctive enthusiasm and attraction to nature.  This attraction is likely a product of evolutionary biology where our love for life helps to sustain both life itself and the conditions favourable for life.

    Ecotherapists acknowledge and use the principles of biophilia to structure therapies for their patients’ mental healing and well-being.  They also believe that planetary well-being and an individual’s well-being are deeply interconnected.

    The following are just some of the ways that making time in your life for nature can soothe and improve your mind:

    Stress reduction

    japan bamboo forestShinrin-yoku  or “Forest bathing” is a Japanese practice that consists of seeking out and allowing the mind and body to bask in natural settings.  One study of almost 500 volunteers who participated in sessions of walking or standing in a forest settings showed decreases in stress, hostility, and depression as a results of shinrin-yoku.   Interestingly, the more chronic the stress, the more dramatic the relaxation effect.

    Increased focus

    We often rely on something called directed attention to complete tasks that require mental effort to maintain focus.  With constant use, this system can become exhausted and it becomes more difficult to focus.  Attention restoration theory asserts that our fatigued minds can rest from the multitudes of assaults on our attention common in busy work and city life, when we surround ourselves with the ‘soft fascinations’ of nature.  Gently rustling leaves and waves softly rolling on to the shore require relatively effortless attention and allow the mind to recover.

    Improved memory

    Abeach walklong with improvements in focus, time spent in nature can also improve memory performance.  A study led by Marc Berman, with partners from the University of Michigan and Stanford University, showed that walking in nature and viewing pictures of nature can improve performance on memory-dependent tasks by about 20%.

    Increased creativity

    According to this study, creativity scores improved by a full 50% after spending time in the wilderness.  Participants in the study spent 4 to 6 days on a wilderness hike.  Although the result can’t be attributed directly to the presence of nature alone, the disconnect from technology and the physical activity associated with moving through the forest are common occurrences when we venture out to spend any kind of time in nature.

    Increased sense of connectedness

    sunlight Spending time in nature increases your sense of connectedness to it.  Your sense of self expands to include the other living things on the planet.  Bonding with one’s bioregion provides an inner sense of belonging and is also known to motivate earth-friendly behaviour.

    Increased sense of happiness

    As reported in this study, individuals who are connected to nature often report a higher level of psychological well-being, vitality, and life satisfaction.  Spending just 20 minutes in vegetation-rich nature can temporarily improve your sense of vitality and diminish depression.

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