Within sight of downtown Seoul, capital of South Korea and a hub of stressful modern life, salesman Sungvin Hong rests after a hike in Bukhansan National Park. The park attracts some five million visitors a year.
When we get closer to nature—be it untouched wilderness or a backyard tree—we do our overstressed brains a favor.
Story by Florence Williams Photographs by Lucas Foglia Published December 8, 2015 National Geographic Magazine | January 2016
When you head out to the desert, David Strayer is the kind of man you want behind the wheel. He never texts or talks on the phone while driving. He doesn’t even approve of eating in the car. A cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah who specializes in attention, Strayer knows our brains are prone to mistakes, especially when we’re multitasking and dodging distractions. Among other things, his research has shown that using a cell phone impairs most drivers as much as drinking alcohol does. Strayer is in a unique position to understand what modern life does to us. An avid backpacker, he thinks he knows the antidote: Nature.…. In England researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School recently analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment (all of which are also correlated with health). In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within about a half mile of green space. And in 2015 an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space.
It’s difficult to tell from these kinds of studies why people feel better. Is it the fresh air? Do certain colors or fractal shapes trigger neurochemicals in our visual cortex? Or is it just that people in greener neighborhoods use the parks to exercise more? … What he and other researchers suspect is that nature works primarily by lowering stress. Compared with people who have lousy window views, those who can see trees and grass have been shown to recover faster in hospitals, perform better in school, and even display less violent behavior in neighborhoods where it’s common. Such results jibe with experimental studies of the central nervous system. Measurements of stress hormones, respiration, heart rate, and sweating suggest that short doses of nature—or even pictures of the natural world—can calm people down and sharpen their performance… All this evidence for the benefits of nature is pouring in at a time when disconnection from it is pervasive, says Lisa Nisbet, a psychology professor at Canada’s Trent University. We love our state and national parks, but per capita visits have been declining since the dawn of email. So have visits to the backyard. One recent Nature Conservancy poll found that only about 10 percent of American teens spend time outside every day. According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, American adults spend less time outdoors than they do inside vehicles—less than 5 percent of their day…. Nooshin Razani at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, is one of several doctors who have noticed the emerging data on nature and health. As part of a pilot project, she’s training pediatricians in the outpatient clinic to write prescriptions for young patients and their families to visit nearby parks. It’s not as simple as taking a pill. To guide the physicians and patients into a new mind-set, she says, “we have transformed the clinical space so nature is everywhere. There are maps on the wall, so it’s easy to talk about where to go, and pictures of local wilderness, which are healing to look at for both the doctor and patient.” The hospital is partnering with the East Bay Regional Parks District to provide transportation to parks and programs there for entire families…. Strayer is most interested in how nature affects higher order problem solving. His research builds on the attention restoration theory proposed by environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan. They argue that it’s the visual elements in natural environments—sunsets, streams, butterflies—that reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from what Olmsted called the “nervous irritation” of city life. “Soft fascination … permits a more reflective mode,” wrote the Kaplans—and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors. A few years ago, for example, in an experiment similar to Bratman’s, Stephen Kaplan and his colleagues found that a 50-minute walk in an arboretum improved executive attention skills, such as short-term memory, while walking along a city street did not. “Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost,” the researchers wrote in their paper. It exists, they continued, and it’s called “interacting with nature.“…