“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.
On the third day of a camping trip in the wild canyons near Bluff, Utah, Strayer is mixing up an enormous iron kettle of chicken enchilada pie while explaining what he calls the “three-day effect” to 22 psychology students. Our brains, he says, aren’t tireless three-pound machines; they’re easily fatigued. When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too. Strayer has demonstrated as much with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. The three-day effect, he says, is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough…
“On the third day my senses recalibrate -- I smell things and hear things I didn’t before,” Strayer says. The early evening sun has saturated the red canyon walls; the group is mellow and hungry in that satisfying, campout way. Strayer, in a rumpled T-shirt and with a slight sunburn, is definitely looking relaxed. “I’m more in tune with nature,” he goes on. “If you can have the experience of being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.”
…Paracelsus, the 16th-century German-Swiss physician… wrote, “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.” In 1798, sitting on the banks of the River Wye, William Wordsworth marveled at how “an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony” offered relief from “the fever of the world.” American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir inherited that outlook. Along with Olmsted, they built the spiritual and emotional case for creating the world’s first national parks by claiming that nature had healing powers.
There wasn’t much hard evidence then -- but there is now… Strayer and other scientists are looking with renewed interest at how nature affects our brains and bodies. Building on advances in neuroscience and psychology, they’ve begun to quantify what once seemed divine and mysterious. These measurements -- of everything from stress hormones to heart rate to brain waves to protein markers --indicate that when we spend time in green space, “there is something profound going on,” as Strayer puts it.
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.
“People underestimate the happiness effect” of being outdoors, Nisbet says. “We don’t think of it as a way to increase happiness. We think other things will, like shopping or TV. We evolved in nature. It’s strange we’d be so disconnected...”
A few years ago… 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.”
…Something mysterious will always remain, Strayer says, and maybe that’s as it should be. “At the end of the day,” he says, “we come out in nature not because the science says it does something to us, but ecause of how it makes us feel.”
-- Florence Williams, “This is Your Brain on Nature,” National Geographic Magazine, January 2016.
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If there was a “happiness pill,” would you be tempted to purchase and take it? Surely millions of Americans would, based on the billions of dollars that are spent each year on pills, drinks, and other products that promise to make us feel better.
Likewise, if there was a pharmaceutical drug or a vitamin or supplement that was virtually guaranteed to improve our brain function, wouldn’t more than a few of us be tempted to fork over some of our funds and give it a try? I'll bet some of us would.
And yet, as is often pointed out, there are many things/activities we can DO that are almost certain to lift our spirits and make us feel happier. And they’re often more effective, and free of the side effects of a drug. Take hiking, for example?!
Why is it that so many people are quick to buy things that promise happiness, feeling better, or self-improvement, and yet sometimes resist making lifestyle changes, or engaging in activities that could have even more satisfying results?
Is that a mystery of human behavior? Certainly one explanation would be the relentless advertising that has long promised quick fixes for our problems.
It’s also true that many of us aren’t especially well educated in the art of living a balanced life. And who among us are experts on the subject of happiness?
The above excerpt from National Geographic focuses particularly on nature’s beneficial effects on the human brain. And what do we actually feel when we spend time in nature? A sense of relaxation, increased well-being… and yes, often a feeling of happiness.
It’s all too easy to get caught up in the endless distractions of everyday life, and at the same time, never too late to get back on track. When it comes to re-connecting with nature, one fulfilling way to get there, of course, is to follow “the path of hiking.”
-- Charlie Cook