Nature & Health: The Power of Connection

by Faye Berry | Originally published on the Biomimicry Institute Blog

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In the midst of COVID-19, people are stressed. We are fighting a pandemic that has stripped us of our routines and kept us inside. Yet, even before COVID-19, there were reasons to be stressed in this era of technology.

Since 1981, there has been a “18–25% decline in nature-based recreation.” And in 2008, “for the first time in human history, more people were living in cities than in the countryside”. These bustling, densely populated cities lack green, nature-filled spaces, but are overflowing with technology and gadgets. As a result, we are increasingly spending more time inside, face-to-face with screens. Our time spent in nature and time spent on technology is out of balance, with technology dominating our days.

Research has shown directed attention fatigue can be combated by time in nature. Indeed, that connection with nature is the foundation of the Attention Restoration Theory (ART).

As technology and city-scapes have continued to tear us away from nature, we have lost appreciation for its beauty and power. We have begun to believe that nature is a luxury, not a necessity, critical for healthy growth and development. Nature, however, is most definitely a necessity. And for those of us that have nature accessible, we must make it part of our new normal.

Many people today are experiencing nature-deficit disorder, a non-clinical term that describes the negative effects a lack of exposure to nature has on us. One common result of nature-deficit disorder is directed attention fatigue — the inability to remain focused on a single task, conversation, or item, often caused by the brain being overstimulated by technology.

Research has shown directed attention fatigue can be combated by time in nature. Indeed, that connection with nature is the foundation of the Attention Restoration Theory (ART).

To test the success and power of ART, a group of psychology professors from the University of Utah and the University of Kansas conducted a study. The professors gathered a group of 24 people who were about to embark on various Outward Bound expeditions in nature. The day before their expeditions, these participants took a remote associates test (a test which measures creativity and focus).

The result was that the RAT scores saw “a 50% increase in performance after four days of exposure to nature”

Then, the professors collected a group of 32 people, similar in age to the first group of participants, who were currently on Outward Bound expeditions hiking either in Alaska, Maine, Colorado, or Washington. This group of participants took a remote associates test after four days of hiking. After factoring in age, the professors compared the RAT scores of the two groups. The result was that the RAT scores saw “a 50% increase in performance after four days of exposure to nature”, meaning that the hiking group’s scores were 50% higher than the pre-hike group’s scores. This shift in RAT scores indicates a major increase in creativity and problem solving as a result of being in nature.

Aside from combating nature deficit disorder, engaging with nature has many health benefits of its own.

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Photo by Ali Yahya

For example, spending time in nature has been shown to decrease stress. Scientists in Japan conducted an experiment to determine how powerful exposure to nature is in decreasing stress. In this experiment, 48 young Japanese males “free of previously diagnosed cardiovascular, allergic, or mental diseases” were instructed to walk in a “forest zone” for 12–15 minutes one day and in a “city zone” for 12–15 minutes during the following day. The participants’ heart rates were measured as they walked on both days. The measurements taken showed that when walking in the “forest zones,” the men consistently had lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability than when walking in “city zones”. This indicates that when walking in “forest zones”, the men experienced more relaxation and less stress.

Connecting with nature and basking in its benefits can be quite easy — we simply need to spend more time in nature. This can be as simple as a relaxing walk on a trail that runs through the woods. You can do it alone, with friends and family, or with a guide. This type of intentional ecotherapy, known as forest-bathing, has been practiced in Japan since the late 1980’s. It is one of the longest standing and easiest ways to become involved with nature. Forest-bathing was originally known as shinrin-yoku, which translates to “taking in the forest” in English.

A study conducted by scientists from Japan shows that forest-bathing helps improve our salivary cortisol, cardiovascular health, stress levels, and overall happiness.

You can forest-bathe anywhere with trees. There are many forest-bathing guides who take groups on long 2–3 hour excursions through nature. A study conducted by scientists from Japan shows that forest-bathing helps improve our salivary cortisol, cardiovascular health, stress levels, and overall happiness. But, again, an enjoyable walk in the woods will suffice.

If you can’t go outside or don’t have access to green spaces, bringing wilderness to your screens and journals can be an alternative way to spend time with nature. The Biomimicry Institute’s 30 Days of Reconnection embraced this idea in the wake of the novel coronavirus. The 30 Days of Reconnection series of activities includes creating a biomimicry journal and using biomimicry to seek nature’s wisdom regardless of where the participant is in the world. Biomimicry is a great lens to view our world through and a great way to reconnect with the natural world around us.

In stressful and unfamiliar times like today, where we find ourselves spending more and more time inside, stepping out for a breath of fresh air and some time in nature may be just what we need to stay healthy and grounded.

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Faye Berry is a rising senior at Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania. She has enjoyed nature from a young age and continues to explore the world around her.

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. www.biomimicry.org

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