By Lisa Charron, Natural Resources Foundation
On my birthday, my boyfriend and I went hiking at Governor Dodge State Park. We picked out a long, looping trail, headed into the woods and immediately got lost.
We found ourselves on a narrow trail broken by roots and jutting rocks, climbing ever more steeply. I started to breathe harder. But I couldn’t help but notice the determined way the saplings clung to the rocky hillside and the intricate patterns on the fallen leaves. Adrenaline nonetheless pushed me up the hill; I knew there would be something spectacular at the top.
Sure enough, after scrambling up the last few rocky feet, we emerged onto a stone outcropping. We could see the whole park. The golds and russets and bright reds and spots of dark green. The rise of the land directly across the valley from us, and all the little ravines and nicks in the hillsides. And of course, we just stood there, unspeaking and unthinking. Unable to put words even in our own heads to how we felt. I could have sat there for hours in the same state, but the other hundred views of lakes and geese and knolls and tree trunks were also beckoning. We headed down the slope and continued on what would be a blissful day.
You’ve probably had that very same feeling that I did on the stony outcrop at Governor Dodge State Park. Have you ever wondered what that feeling is and why we get it when we look at stunning landscapes or even just a tree in the backyard?
It turns out that scientists and philosophers have been thinking about this very thing for decades, and the book Your Brain on Nature by Eva Selhub and Alan Logan outlines the research linking time spent in nature to a host of mental health benefits.
Nature has historically been used for therapy in a variety of ways: gardening therapy for veterans suffering from PTSD, wilderness therapy for at-risk children, peaceful nature resorts for those experiencing a variety of mental health issues. By and large, these practices fell out of vogue by the mid-20th century, until psychologists revamped the idea that nature might be good for your brain in the 1970s.
Researchers Stephen and Rachel Kaplan proposed that nature is inherently fascinating to humans because a long time ago we needed to pay close attention to the savanna in order to survive, and we pay attention to what we are fascinated by. More importantly, they also tested whether this nature-fascination has the ability to restore our minds after a difficult or boring task. After a bunch of studies, they determined that it does. That refreshing feeling you get when you finally get outside after a long day of work; the clarity you feel when you look out the window; the ability to pay close attention for hours watching birds…all vestiges of human evolution.
Researcher Roger Ulrich noticed that people in Ann Arbor, Michigan would drive further to get to the mall in order to take a more scenic route. He wondered why. His hypothesis had to do with stress instead of attention. After a stressful exam he showed some students slides of nature scenes and some slides of urban scenes. He found that those who saw the nature slides recovered more quickly and thoroughly from the stressful experience. This finding has been confirmed by many studies since then. Many of us lead fairly stressed lives, balancing careers and families and hobbies, not to mention scary worldwide events and politics. Next time you’re feeling at your wit’s end, step outside for a few moments or buy a plant for your home or office. Better yet, take a day trip to one of Wisconsin’s magical state parks. We’re lucky in Wisconsin to have so many beautiful natural areas we can go to to let nature restore our minds.
I found Your Brain on Nature extremely interesting. It explores specific aspects of nature like light and scent, it has a chapter entirely devoted to animals and it even goes into how natural diets can affect our mental health. You’ve probably already felt all the good things that nature can do for you mind, but this book helps us understand how and why. In clearly outlining the scientifically proven reasons we need nature, the book may also be a powerful, untapped tool for conservation.