Why The Brain Needs Nature For Its Health


brain nature

The Industrial Revolution brought many blessings to humanity, such as increased standards of living, improved educational opportunities and game-changing technological innovations. Yet it all came with a sense of loss, especially in regard to our connection to nature, as we moved away from an agrarian way of life. Most obviously, there’s the environmental degradation that threatens our health and ecological sustainability. But our interior environments — the landscapes of our individual minds and spirits — may be paying an even more costly price.

Discussion of the consequences of this shift is not new. Early on in the industrial era, the American transcendentalists and poets like Walt Whitman attempted to draw attention to the topic. In “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman helped us understand human psychological characteristics by describing his own place within the phenomena of the physical world. Henry David Thoreau wrote that nature is a “tonic” for the spirit, and Ralph Waldo Emerson insisted that “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.” Losing connection to it, they warned, would lead to corruption of the body, mind and spirit. Although the “taming” of the land and our mass movement into urban areas continued unabated, we did begin to see nature as a place for leisure, a place to escape the drudgeries of life and to recreate ourselves.

Today, we are living in a time that could be viewed as one that sprung from the Industrial Revolution — the age of information. We are becoming more connected to one another through the internet, cellphones, and other technologies, but what about our connection to nature? According to Richard Louv, the author who coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” we are more disconnected from it than ever and are paying the price.

In his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder,” Louv warns that children are spending far less time outside than previous generations did, a trend that may help explain increases in attention deficit disorder (ADD), obesity, and other physical and mental problems plaguing today’s youth. Although he admits that the term should not be considered a medical diagnosis, in an Louv defines nature deficit disorder as the “human cost of alienation from nature” with a “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.”

Since the publication of his book, additional research has confirmed the same idea: Children’s brains and bodies need to connect with the natural world. Dr. Pierre Walter, in his article “Greening the Net Generation: Outdoor Adult Learning in the Digital Age,” cites multiple studies showing that kids with ADD improve dramatically when allowed free time to explore and play in natural settings. Louv mentions that schools in California that added outdoor education to their sixth-grade curriculum saw impressive improvements in grades and tests scores, with math and science scores jumping as much as 26%. In addition, according to Louv, kids who play outside, rather than playing indoors or watching videos, display much greater creative development, inventing games, and participating in imaginative role playing.

But why aren’t children spending time outdoors? Doesn’t every child want to go outside and play as much as possible? Well, not as much as previous generations. Kids today simply don’t have as much free time to play on their own. Walter, an environmental-education expert at the University of British Columbia, observes a disturbing parenting trend. Wanting their kids to have competitive advantage, modern parents often schedule their kids’ free time around structured activities — sports, music lessons, dance classes, and the like.

And, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, many educators, feeling pressure to produce measurable academic outcomes, schedule fewer nature and science-based field trips, and many have reduced or eliminated recess time. According to technology reporter Jane Wakefield of BBC News, when kids ages 5 to 16 do get free time, they generally head straight to the computer or television, spending about 6.5 hours per week on average watching video entertainment of some sort.

On top of these trends, today’s parents are more fearful than previous generations about the dangers of unsupervised play. One study by Britain’s Policy Study Institute showed that kids are not allowed to roam as far from home as they once did, with only one-ninth the space available to them compared to the average kid in 1970. Parents report that “stranger danger” makes them nervous about letting their kids wander free, in spite of the fact that crimes against children are at an all-time low. Walter warns that, because of this protectiveness, kids are “losing capacity to think or learn about the world directly.”

Children are certainly not the only ones who suffer from NDD — adults clearly need their green time too. Louv notes, “Nature deficit disorder also affects adults, whole communities and the future of humankind’s relationship to nature.” Although most studies have focused on children, several have shown that adults gain similar benefits from time spent outdoors, especially in stress reduction and depression relief. Notably, even small representations of nature in work environments, such as potted plants and nature photography, reduce stress, and increase productivity.

Dr. Barbara Frank, a geologist, is one among many who are offering solutions to the problem of NDD. In her book “Grandparenting With The Wisdom of Nature,” she proposes that baby boomers can use nature to bond with and nurture their grandkids. When boomers were kids, they had a greater opportunity to explore nature than today’s parents did, so they are the ideal candidates to ignite appreciation for the outdoors in the next generation. Grandparents can use simple and natural concepts to educate kids, but the important thing, she says, is just getting out there. In an interview, she suggests, “Let the kids take the lead. Rather than thinking that you have to be the one teaching — and perhaps being scared that you don’t know what to teach them — take them to places and see what they see.” Kids often know a lot about nature from school lessons and nature videos, but they are sorely lacking in direct experiences of it.

Of course, parents too are an important part of the solution. A study published in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration shows that the time a child spends in nature is directly related to how much time his or her parent does. Since 1987, visits to national parks and forests have declined by 25%, and kids often stay plugged in to iPods, cellphones, and tablet computers when they do visit. By making these places, once again, destinations of choice, and by encouraging direct interaction with nature once the family has arrived, parents can nurture the minds and bodies of their children — and their own — in simple and enjoyable ways.

Famed biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote that biophilia, “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life,” is a natural and universal trait of the human species. However, this seems to be an urge that must be nurtured and developed to continue. Once a genuine connection with nature is established, people are far more likely to display concern for the environment, as well as concern for fellow human beings, since time outdoors has been shown to develop empathy and compassion. When in nature, it is as though we somehow step beyond the petty concerns of our lives to experience, at least for a moment, a more expanded sense of being.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.

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