“I saw this little flower as I was coming back from my class…and it really gave me a strong sense of hope.”
Twentieth Century German social psychologist Erich Fromm first advanced the notion that humans hold an inborn connection to nature. Later, it was popularized by biologist E.O. Wilson as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” In the ensuing years, support for the positive effects of nature has gained considerable traction, grounded in a growing body of research. In recent weeks, at least four new studies have emerged adding more validity to what science repeatedly has revealed: being around nature is good for us. The latest research shows that interacting with nature makes the brain stronger and soothes the psyche.
One study, for example, found healthy brain changes among elderly city dwellers who live near forests. Another showed positive effects of exposure to residential green spaces on the attention span of children. A third suggested that even a brief encounter with something natural — the aforementioned little flower, for example — can elevate one’s mood. Finally, another study concluded that there are certain outdoor places — rural and coastal areas — that make people happier than other locations, such as urban gardens or parks.
Collectively, the work sends a powerful message about Mother Nature as a valuable resource for human health. Moreover, it underscores the importance of protecting the environment at a time when it has come under increasing stress from climate change and urbanization.
“Exposure to nature increases people’s social wellbeing,” said Holli-Anne Passmore, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus and author of a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology that showed even a fleeting look at something natural can make a difference. And yet, today “we are becoming more disconnected from the nature around us, nature that we inherently are a part of, not separate from,” she added.
In addition to Passmore’s research, the new studies across Europe revealed a host of benefits that stem from time spent in nature. Scientists in Berlin at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development found that elderly city-dwellers who lived not far from forests — within a radius of about 1 or 2 kilometers — had higher activity levels in their amygdala, a central nucleus in the brain that plays an important role in stress processing and reactions to danger, than those who lived near urban green spaces. “I think it is a very novel thought at least for the neurosciences that the environment has an impact on plasticity of the brain,” said lead author Simone Kühn. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Life in the city can produce chronic stress from noise, pollution and over-population. In her study of elderly city dwellers, Kühn, who now works at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, wanted to find out whether proximity to a forest could help them cope.
She found that those living close to a forest were more likely to show signs of a healthy amygdala, although the same was not true for those who lived near urban green spaces. Study participants were given memory and reasoning tests, and underwent MRI brain imaging. Kühn suggested it might be wise for urban planners “[to try] to integrate forests, not only parks, in cities maybe,” adding advice for city home buyers: “One should carefully select not only the flat or the house, but also take the surroundings into account.”
Over in Spain, researchers studying 1,500 children in two towns found that those whose homes were surrounded by green — shrubs and bushes, trees and flowers — scored higher on two different cognitive attention tests than those who lived in houses that did not have any vegetation around them. “More contact with greenness is associated with improved brain development in children, which is very important, given that such an improvement could result in an advantage in mental capital, which, in turn, would have long-lasting life course effects,” said Payam Dadvand, first author of the study, which appeared in the journal Environment Health Perspectives.
The children’s study built upon two earlier studies, one that suggested that greenness at schools also was related to enhanced cognitive development in schoolchildren, and a second that found children who spent more time playing in green spaces were less likely to show behavioral and emotional problems, such as hyperactivity and inattentiveness.
To the north, English scientists found that spending time in rural or coastal settings was more psychologically uplifting than visiting urban green spaces, such as city gardens and parks. The study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, asked participants to describe their excursions and determined that the subjects experienced greater feelings of relaxation and refreshment, as well as stronger emotional connections to the natural world, in coastal or rural regions, especially if they spent more than 30 minutes in the setting.
They also found that visits to protected or designated areas — national parks, for example — produced the same results. “We found that our mental wellbeing and our emotional bond with nature may differ, depending on the type and quality of an environment we visit,” said Kayleigh Wyles, lead author, who conducted the research while at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and who is now a lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Surrey.
Passmore’s research, which took place during a two-week period, examined how people felt when they took only a moment in their daily routines to notice something natural around them. They were told to jot down a short note about how they responded to it. Passmore compared this group to two other groups, one tracking their reactions to human-built objects, like a desk or chair, and a third, which did neither.
The sense of well-being among those who focused on natural objects was significantly higher than either of the two control groups, according to the study. One participant, for example, who looked upward at the sky wrote: “It made me feel free because the sky is endless.” Another, who noticed the sun, wrote: “Made me feel hopeful, the sun never stops rising.”
Most people needn’t leave their own space to take advantage of nature’s benefits, Passmore said. “People are searching for ways to improve their wellbeing,” she said. “One way to do that is simply to notice the nature around you on a daily basis, and notice how it makes you feel. Even in cities, there are trees, birds, leaves, sunshine, and stars. Plants and flowers indoors. Noticing nearby nature does not require additional time. It is one way to add boosts of happiness and wonder to your day.”
Based on their findings, the English researchers stressed the importance of protecting rural settings and coastlines, the latter in particular since it is under increasing threat from rising sea levels and storm surges fueled by climate change-induced extreme weather.
“It was surprising to learn that the extent of protection of marine environments also affects the extent of mental health benefits that people gain from their interactions with the sea,” said Mel Austen, head of the sea and society science area at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. “People’s health is likely to become an increasingly important aspect to consider as we manage our coasts and waters.”
Passmore grew up in a city — Edmonton, Canada — but spent considerable time as a youth in her family’s cabin in the woods, and later, as an adult, camping, biking and canoeing. “I have always loved nature and how it makes me feel,” she said. “All of this research — mine and others — on the benefits of nature is important. It indicates ways for people to become happier [and] increase their wellbeing. Valuing the natural world around us is vital to our wellbeing on a short-term daily basis, and of course to our survival as a species.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.