In July of this year, the CBC radio program, Think About It, featured a program on Back to Nature . This program gave a wonderful overview of the emerging understandings of the benefits of nature, and what I would emphasize as the essential benefits of our connection to nature for our well-being. Recent research on the benefits of being in direct contact with the natural world highlights aspects such as the advantages of outdoor physical activity. A study of the benefits of walking noted the difference between walking indoors vs. outdoors: a 15 minute walk outdoors resulted in a 20% improvement in memory and attention – that improvement was not matched by the 15 minute indoor walk. In reflecting on why this is, the participants in the studies noted the value of ‘soft attention’ to the nature world; this ‘soft attention’ has a calming effect, which then leads to a clearing of the mind and emotions…which then leads to a clearer mind that can focus. The persons studied referred to the difference of the outdoor walk as resulting in a feeling of ‘restoration’; the restorative quality of calming the body, mind and spirit, from our daily concerns and our accumulated stress. When we are able to access this calmer state of being, we can also find ourselves slowly entering a state of reflection, which allows us to re-establish a sense of perspective and connect to what is essential to us in our lives – what is fundamentally important to ourselves in any given time or situation.
These studies were with adult participants, but the learnings also apply to children. Studies in child development indicate that children who play outdoors, vs. primarily indoors, have better cognitive development and a better ability to control their emotions – which counsellors and therapists refer to as our ability to ‘self-regulate’ emotions.
Your Brain on Nature, a book that looks at these essential benefits, was written by a Harvard physician, Eva M. Selub and a Naturopath, Alan C. McBride. At the beginning of the book, the authors state:
“As neuroscience develops at a rapid pace, researchers are uncovering functional aspects of the intricate anatomy and physiology of the human brain, allowing them to have a clearer picture of the true depths to which environmental factors influence cognitive and mental health. So far, the results suggest that we have completely underestimated the way in which the human brain is influenced by its physical environment and, in particular, by the elements of the natural worlds of water, vegetation, and animals.”
In essence, I believe that a shift in our thinking as human beings will assist us in being able to access living in balance in our lives, and with our environment. Our modern society has emphasized a viewpoint that we live in nature – that nature is the context around us that we need to work with, find ways to best utilize, and even survive from, but I would see the truth as ‘we are nature’; we are essentially in the natural world, we are part of the web of life. In shifting our ‘paradigm’ of thinking, we will be more prepared to manage the advantages and the challenges of the rapid changes in our modern life.