Since the beginning of our existence, humans have been interacting continuously with nature. Like every other living being on our planet, we evolved under the care of Mother Nature. People often forget that we are actually part of nature. We are animals that started existing in the same way that every other being did: in a natural ecosystem. It is easy to forget, because we like to think of civilization as being removed from every other natural thing that exists, but our origins belie what we truly are. We are beings of nature. It has only been in the last several thousand years that humans have developed techniques that have secluded us from natural surroundings. The development of urban areas has reduced natural environments globally. Have we lost our affection for nature?
Not according to studies focusing on ‘environmental psychology’. They show that humans still have positive reactions to nature and natural environments, an instinctive ‘biophilia’. One of the most famous studies in this field demonstrated that people who were hospitalized recovered more quickly with a view of trees than with a view of a brick wall. Follow-up studies have focused on three positive effects of exposure to natural environments.
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Positive effects of nature
According to proponents of environmental psychology, spending time in nature rather than human-made environments has three positive effects:
- Reduced stress
- Improved mood
- Improved cognitive performance
There are two mainstream psychology theories that attempt to explain these outcomes:
Explanation 1: Psychoevolutionary Theory
Psychoevolutionary Theory (PET) asserts that the positive reaction that humans experience in nature is programmed evolutionarily. Nature was the first place that humans learned to survive by gathering the resources around us, just as our evolutionary ancestors did. It’s easy to lose sight of in a world so full of pre-packaged food and bottled water, but the beauty we see in rivers and plant and animal life stems from a place of survival. The food and water that exists all around us has always helped humanity to survive, so it is adaptive to perceive these things as beautiful and enjoy being around them.
Because of the demands of evolution, which mostly include survival and reproduction, humans have positive built-in reactions to natural environments. PET explains how being in nature can reduce stress and improve your mood, but doesn’t fully explain how being in nature improves cognitive performance. Can nature make you smarter?
Explanation 2: Attention Restoration Theory
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) states that a natural environment offers a setting where you can restore your ‘directed attention’. Directed attention is the conscious attention you need for cognitive tasks, and this cognitive focus can become fatigued after prolonged mental activity. Most people live out a relatively hectic lifestyle in a human-made environment, filled with social and professional demands. Nature offers a completely different setting, which gently distracts you from the stresses of civilized life. This is when ‘undirected attention’ (or the subconscious) can take over. This means that nature recharges your mental batteries! ART focuses on explaining how nature improves cognitive performance, but only indirectly explains how nature reduces stress and improves mood.
A Bacterium That Makes You Happy?
Another explanation for the three main positive effects of spending time in nature is not a psychological theory, but a biopsychological discovery: a bacterium commonly found in soil. The bacterium clearly don’t account for everything, as both being in nature and viewing pictures of natural environments enhance well-being. Being in nature yourself however, seems to have a stronger effect, which makes sense. Immersion will always produce stronger sensory responses than simply looking at a picture. But the benefits of contact with nature are not just psychological.
According to recent research, physically being in a natural environment promotes cognitive performance and offers higher resistance to stress, because of exposure to a bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae. In the brains of mice, and thus likely in humans, this bacterium leads to a higher release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin plays a role in maintaining a positive mood and protecting against depression. The mice, which received exposure to the bacterium in a laboratory environment, learned mazes faster and exhibited fewer anxiety behaviors than mice that hadn’t had any Mycobacterium exposure. These findings constitute a physical fact: being in nature alters your brain in a way that makes you feel better.
A Natural High
Some hallucinogenic substances, called entheogens, occur naturally in plants all over the world, and can actually help promote a positive mental state, when used appropriately. These substances, many of which work through the serotonin system, help people to feel a sense of oneness and connection with the world and beings around them. For those of us that can’t or don’t want to experience hallucinogens, there’s good news: you can achieve that feeling in nature just by sitting, clearing your mind, and truly experiencing everything around you. This is a form of meditation, and it pairs perfectly with the calming effects of being in nature. And remember, the effects of meditation are also natural. Don’t forget that your brain and body are parts of nature, themselves.
Apply it in your daily life
All in all, being exposed to a natural environment makes you function better. Physically being in nature will make you feel better than just looking at a picture, but even that small act triggers associations in your brain about past experiences you’ve had. Looking at pictures of nature allows you to feel some of those positive effects on a smaller scale. So yes, take another look at the pictures in this article, and enhance your well-being right away. Be sure to set a picture of a natural environment as your desktop wallpaper, so that you can experience these effects right away: Google Search HD Nature Wallpapers.
It is highly advisable to try to walk through a natural environment on a regular basis. Because exercise is important to the health of your brain and body, it’s efficient to combine being in nature with jogging, or walking your dog, if you have one.
If you’re living in the city, look for a nearby natural environment. Get out in nature by finding a quiet spot to read a book, taking a walk or a jog on a hiking trail, or gardening in your yard or a community garden. By setting regular times to expose yourself to nature, you can make this into a routine. Use this routine for relaxing your mind and seeing things from a different perspective by being somewhere else. Studies have shown that decision-making and cognitive tasks are easier when you do something else between tasks, which clears your mind of stress and distraction. When choosing an office space, choose one with view of nature. You could even keep a potted plant at your desk. If this is not possible, hang a poster of a natural scene.
Appreciate nature and you will improve your well-being!
It’s your turn now!
Please tell us how you apply this principle in your daily life, by leaving a comment below.