One person who has looked more deeply than most into this question of the science of why we respond as we do to nature, is Losing Eden author Lucy Jones. Her journey into researching why we feel better when we take a break in some green space, or wander along a beach, or tend a garden, began with her own rewilding. Jones turned to nature, to long walks in Walthamstow Marshes, as her a healing form of rehab following drug and alcohol addiction. She writes, beautifully, “Nature picked me up by the scruff of my neck, and I rested in her teeth for a while.”
The research she discovered on why being in nature is good for us was hugely diverse. “My mind was blown by the variety and depth of the evidence ,” she says.
She delved into studies in the field of biophilia – biologist EO Wilson’s term for the idea that we have an innate affinity to other life, and are drawn to living things, and that is an expression of our genes. Jones was interested in why, for instance, we were attracted to certain landscapes, trees, or vistas. “One of the things that I personally noticed was that there was a sprawling, dark yew tree in the entrance of the cemetery and very time I went under this quite thick, deep canopy, I always felt like I had taken a split-second yoga class.”
When she looked at studies around tree shape, she found research by Gordon Orians at the University of Washington, that showed we prefer trees that are the same shape as those that would have helped us, by offering shelter and safety, in our evolutionary history. “These are trees,” she says, “with a broad canopy that spreads in width further than its height and it has umbrella-like branches and small leaves.”
That sense of biophilia is also there in our feelings about open waters. The idea that we have a “blue mind” that responds to being near water, was popularised by Wallace Nichols, in his book The Blue Mind: he Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. Even looking at images of water relaxes us. Project Soothe, a study at Edinburgh University, has been finding that many of the images we find most relaxing and soothing are those involving water.
Jones discovered that MRI scans are showing that looking at fractals, the kind of patterns we find regularly in nature – in a tree, a shell, a fern – lowers our stress levels. She also looked into the research that had been done into sense of awe – that feeling we have when we look at a mountain landscape or the sun setting over the sea. “There’s a really exciting new field of the science of awe which has come out of California in the last ten years. Most awe experiences do come through contact with nature. At this laboratory in Berkley California, they studied the effect of awe experiences on an inflammation biomarker in the body, cytokines. They tested for these with various positive emotions and found that it was only awe that reduced levels of cytokines to a significant degree.” Cytokines, she points out, are associated with disease, depression and ill health. “That suggested that these awe experiences weren’t only giving us a momentary boost of wonder, they were also having a direct influence on our health and life expectancy.”
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