“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”
— E. O. Wilson
This Is Your Brain On Nature: By Conscious Contributor Dr. Jay Kumar
How did you celebrate Earth Day? Did you go for a hike, take a walk in the park, or maybe even enjoy some beach time? While Earth Day comes only once a year, every day is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the magnificence and majesty that Mother Earth has to offer. As a self-avowed Nature lover, I need no excuse to enjoy the great outdoors. But the part of me that’s a researcher and professor of brain science and health continues to be fascinated by the intimate connection between your brain and Nature. Let’s explore more in this newsletter “This Is Your Brain on Nature.”
Do you ever wonder why spas, yoga studios and online meditation videos often play sounds of chirping birds, ocean waves, or soothing rain? It has to do with the remarkable concept that your brain is “naturally” happy and thrives in the great outdoors. A growing body of research now believes the powerful idea that because humans evolved in nature our brains must also be wired to connect with nature.
The emerging fields of eco-psychology and eco-biology advocate that though the human brain may be adapting to our fast-paced 24/7 technological world, the brain’s original function was to respond to the natural world, in which humans dwelled and evolved over millennia.
According to this area of study, human beings have an instinctual call to connect with nature. Known as nature connectedness, it’s a concept originally developed in the last century by the biologist E. O. Wilson. It’s the reason why Wilson aptly states in the opening quote that Nature holds the secret key for your health and happiness.
Nature is in your DNA; Nature is wired into your brain!
But there’s a real danger that’s taking place in society today—we are spending less time in Nature. Here’s one alarming statistic—American kids on average pass more time staring at a TV, computer screen, or mobile device (1,023 hours per year) than they do learning in school (900 hours per year) or playing outside (26 hours per year). YIKES!
The situation has become so dire that researchers have appropriately coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” in order to capture the seriousness of the problem. Never heard of it? More studies suggest the reason how stress has become the malady of modern life and why we suffer from brain-fatigue is the result of Nature-Deficit Disorder.
A growing body of research proposes that we as a society are becoming more and more disconnected from the healing power of nature. Bringing awareness to this epidemic is a concern that I wrote about a few years ago with fellow scientist, Menas Kafatos, that underscores the danger of becoming increasingly “Disconnected in an Overconnected World.”
Before revealing to you how Nature benefits your brain, it’s helpful to know how the lack of Nature impacts it. When study participants were put into an fMRI machine and shown images of hectic urban life, the area of the brain, known as the amygdala, showed greater activity. This is the area of the brain that governs your “fight-or-flight response.” When your amygdala runs rampant, you experience heightened levels of stress and anxiety—not to mention all the negative consequences that undermine your health and happiness!
But let me offer this bit of good news. A powerful and natural antidote to stress, anxiety, depression—even ADHD and insomnia—may be just outside your window. It’s called Mother Nature!
So how exactly does nature heal? The answer again resides in your brain and relates to the concept known as the relaxation response, a mechanism wired into your neurobiology that helps you cope with stress. In an experiment conducted in South Korea, participants were shown images of the outdoors. Areas of the brain, known as the insula and anterior cingulate, that govern altruism, contentment, and an overall sense of peace, flashed with activity.
That’s precisely what students in my university courses recently experienced. As a way to honor Earth Day I decided to hold all my lectures this week outside—free from technology by having students turn off all devices. Each class started with a 10 minute “walking meditation” in Nature. Not one student complained about having phones and computers turned off for the entire 90 min. of class! Sadly, several graduating seniors bemoaned how this was the only class they’d ever had outside during their entire time in college.
All the research reveal one indisputable fact—spending time in Nature calms the mind and soothes your soul! A short walk in the woods; watching a sunset; stopping to take in a hummingbird as it darts between flowers, each of these experiences in Nature benefits your brain, boosts your health, and brings you happiness.
Consider the outdoors as your free spa and a form of medication that requires no prescription. Nature, it turns out, is your brain’s best friend!
While taking steps to protect the planet and to care for our “common home” is an important goal, let’s not forget the other advantages that Nature brings. The powerful role that Nature has played in the evolution of the human brain and the undeniable ability it holds for you is the reason why I even dedicated an entire section on the matter in my book Brain, Body & Being: Five Secrets for Achieving Authentic Health & Happiness.
So, if you’ve been putting off relaxing because you think it requires the expense of a massage or visit to a spa, think again. You may find the same benefits from a short walk along a lake, a tree-lined street or during a romp in the park with your pooch.
As I like to say, “Nature doesn’t come with a built-in Wi-Fi signal, but you’re guaranteed to have a strong connection!”
In Health & Happiness,
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