Humans beings used to spend every waking moment amongst nature and the outdoors. Natural environments were what shaped us to become what we are now, and our relationship with it is extremely deep and interconnected. As society advanced, we began to move away from living amongst nature, and many of us live in what could be considered a “concrete jungle” instead. Few question the consequences of modern advancements given its numerous benefits to human life. However, it is important for science to analyse possible side effects of removing humans from our natural habitat. Perhaps the environment of nature is beneficial to human health, and that the complete escape from it would be a mistake.
Some cultures and traditions use visits to natural environments as a form of healing. One example of this is forest bathing trips or “Shinrinyoku” in Japan. These trips involve visiting a forest with the intention of relaxing while bringing along wood essential oils to inhale during the walk. Research has indicated that these trips increase Natural Killer cells which are anti-cancer proteins helpful in both preventing and killing cancer cells (Li, 2010). These trips are not the only example of nature’s therapeutic effects. A study also found that having a window view of nature was able to increase recovery speed for patients after surgery (Ulrich, 1984). Being exposed to sunlight and increasing the body’s vitamin D count also has numerous effects on the immune system as well because almost all immune cells have vitamin D receptors (Baeke et al., 2010). Vitamin D has recently been shown to aid in the reduction of infection and decrease the frequency of autoimmune diseases (Baeke et al., 2010; Lange et al., 2009). These examples are also only a small portion of the health benefits of natural settings because lush greenery affects more than just the immune system.
Across the vast collection of nature research in regards to human health, studies have suggested that being exposed to the outdoors can improve psychological well-being, and has cognitive, social, and physiological benefits (Keniger et al., 2013). The exact mechanism of how being in nature provides these benefits is still not fully understood. One common and highly regarded theory relates to the changes of attention control. The attention restoration theory (ATR) proposes two forms of attention: Involuntary attention, and cognitively directed attention. In the city, there are more stimuli that require immediate attention such as being approached by a car and having to avoid being hit by the vehicle. This involuntary directed attention becomes far more frequent compared to our purposeful directed attention when in those environments. In nature, the involuntary attention is decreased, and allows for directed attention mechanisms to replenish thereby improving memory and attention (Berman et al., 2008). This can have a multitude of positive benefits including, but not limited to lowering stress, blood pressure, and the risk for cardiovascular disease (“Ming” Kuo, 2013; Mitchell & Popham, 2008). The consequence of not having this space for tranquility is also evident in inner cities where less greenery is related to increased stress causing mental fatigue which increases the occurrence of personal irritability, aggression and violence within the community (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001). Alternatively, having more parks and nature friendly places has been shown to increase social cohesion between neighbors (Cox et al., 2017). Not only is nature helpful in personal health, but is helpful in boosting the health of the community as a whole.
Unsurprisingly, the benefits of enjoying a natural setting to the mind is extremely similar to the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Both aim to alleviate stress and mental ruminations through a more focused and tranquil mindset. Research has found that mindfulness meditation is improved when practiced outside in nature (Djernis et al., 2019). The authors of this research hypothesize that the reason is because nature, with its fewer distractions, allows the practitioner to more easily transition to a mindful state. This is a wonderful anecdote that shows how fundamental human practices, such as meditation, that aim to realign the mind to a more natural state are only heightened when performed in our more natural habitat.
In 1980, habitat selection theory was proposed. The theory stated that organisms should be attracted to settings in which they are most likely to survive (ORIANS & GH, 1980). We humans cannot escape the fact that we are creatures of nature, bound to the same laws that govern the universe. Human beings thrive in lush green environments. This is true historically, and is supported by the numerous amounts of scientific studies that this article has explored. It is important for people to recognize the benefits of nature, so that we may preserve it and reintegrate it within our daily lives. Additionally, a simple yet effective method to improve health and mental well-being is going outside and enjoying the view of lush vegetation and wildlife.
As we step back into nature’s own rhythms, we are often left with a sense of vastness, peace and even feel awestruck by nature. We return to the greenery of nature to heal the heart. This is what yogis over the aeons have practiced, essentially taking a silent retreat, a convalescence to heal the heart, clear the mind.
Take a monthly convalescence, a regular retreat of sorts.
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