The fact that nature can help keep us calm is nothing new to the Japanese, who have been practising shinrin-yoku (or forest bathing) since 1982, when the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries suggested it as a healthy lifestyle practice. More recently, a 2010 study by Japanese researchers sent 280 subjects to walk in 24 different forests and city centres across Japan, and found that the forest environments promoted lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity. All proof, said the study’s lead researcher, that our bodies relax in the natural surroundings where they evolved.
Melbourne-based psychologist Dr Susie Burke takes this concept one step further. “The existence and flourishing of natural environments constitute a very meaningful symbolic message, even more so in a troubled and changing world. They convey the message that we live in a naturally ordered world of beauty, peace, inspiration, hope, and transcendence,” she says. In other words, immersing ourselves in a healthy natural environment, in an era when we’re constantly being bombarded with messages about the destructive effects of forces like climate change, reminds us that there is still hope, which further reduces stress.
Research suggests that immersing ourselves in nature gives our prefrontal cortex, the brain’s activity centre, a much-needed break. In 2012, American researchers followed an Outward Bound group for four days as they backpacked through the wilderness, and found that afterwards their creative problem-solving skills had improved by 50 per cent. According to the study’s authors, this was due to both “an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing, and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology.” We’re looking at you, social media.
One 2012 study by researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School concluded, “Urbanization is a potential threat to mental health and well-being”. Nature, on the other hand, nurtures us and boosts our moods, acting as a sort of antidote to modern life. After analysing mental health data from over 10,000 people, using high-resolution mapping to track where they had lived over 18 years, the English researchers found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress and higher well-being.
This is linked to the Attention Restoration Theory developed in the 1980s by environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan. As Dr Burke explains, “Kaplan and Kaplan argue that natural environments allow our directed attention to rest as nature engages an involuntary and effortless form of attention that they call fascination; this in turn improves mood, directed attention, and cognition.” Dr Burke adds that the more biologically diverse the green space, the higher its psychological value.
Just looking at the colour green can get our creative juices flowing, according to a German study from 2012. The researchers found that when people glanced at the colour green for two seconds before doing a creative task, it boosted their creative output compared to briefly looking at other colours including white, grey, red and blue. So the next time you experience a creativity block, a walk to your local park might be all you need.
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