Nature Calls

The earth is slowly waking. Crocuses are stretching towards the sky. The first daffodils have appeared. The scent of winter daphne hovers in the air between Eliot and the lawn. It’s time to get outside again. No more hibernating in my Office Cave.

But what is this urge to go outside, to get back into nature? Is it just a habit or is there something more at work?

“This is Your Brain on Nature” (F. Williams, National Geographic, Jan ’16) examines new research on the subconscious benefits of spending time in nature. I say subconscious because these benefits do not appear to require any conscious cognitive processing on the part of the participant. The key is to simply get into a calm, non-threatening, natural environment.

Although this field is still largely unexplored, one theory for how natural environments can work on us has been proposed by environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan (U. Michigan). Their Attention Restoration Theory is described this way in the National Geographic article, “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.

Nature’s benefits do not seem to be limited to the visual field. “Fascination” with a “gentle, soft focus” might be found through other sensory modalities (sound, smell, touch, and taste), through movement (yoga, tai chi, a slow stroll, flying a kite) and, of course, in meditation.