Or have never known.
They’re hiding in scraps of urban wilderness. In the wild (and rewilding) places that still grow all around us.
Inviting us to return to our habitat.
All the new research points in one direction: to be well, humans need to live as we evolved to do.
In our patterns of eating, sleeping, and moving, in our relationships with each other and with nature, if we can get ancestral (while maintaining all the best bits of our technological and medical advances) we’ll be fine.
According to Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle and Last Child in the Woods, “we have yet to fully realize, or even adequately study, the enhancement of human capacities through the power of nature.”
But those studies are starting to roll in, and the results are astonishing.
Rather than a future where we become better humans through advanced technology, research points to a reconnection with nature to regain capacities we’ve forgotten we have.
Because it turns out that nature improves our intelligence, creativity and performance, and is also profoundly beneficial for our health.
And, on the other side, lack of contact with nature results in ill health, aggression and psychological problems.
Frances Kuo, a professor of environmental science and psychology at the University of Illinois, explains that “as human societies become more urban, we as scientists are in a position to look at humans in much the same way that those who study animal behavior have looked at animals in the wild to see the effect of a changing habitat on this species.”
Kuo notes that without access to nature, humans exhibit behaviours that are very similar to that of animals that are deprived of their natural habitat.
We have started to see this state of deprivation as normal. And the results of it as inevitable.
But we could be so much more than we are now.
Frances Kuo and her team have documented the impacts: “In our studies, people with less access to nature show relatively poor attention or cognitive function, poor management of major life issues, poor impulse control.”
Problems with attention, reduced cognitive function, difficulty making decisions and poor impulse control all point to diminished executive function. Executive Function is the ‘air traffic control‘ centre in the brain, and it develops through secure attachment and loving, reciprocal interactions in early childhood.
The revelation that lack of contact with nature impacts the same area of the brain as lack of connection with responsive caregivers in the early years suggests that nature may be as important for our brains as loving relationships.
But nurturing our brains with nature doesn’t have to involve a primordial forest. Richard Louv cites research that indicates that even small scraps of urban wilderness improves our ability to pay attention, think clearly and remember.
Creativity is a form of intelligence. Arguably one of the most useful kinds.
A Danish study found that 58% percent of children who attended ‘nature kindergartens’ frequently invented new games, whereas only 16% of the children who attended indoor kindergartens did so.
What if the same is true for adults?
Microscopic Smart Bugs
Ingestion of Mycobacterium vaccae, a common bacteria in soil, increases the intellectual capacity of mice, enabling them to find their way through a maze twice as quickly as mice who weren’t exposed to the bacteria.
Mycobacterium vaccae also decreased the anxiety of the mice in the maze, and increased their serotonin levels, suggesting that exposure to nature may be able to improve intelligence and health through contact with friendly microbes.
When Matthew’s health was really bad, we tried everything.
The first thing we found that improved his symptoms was leaving the city.
When he was surrounded by trees, his pain decreased. His stress was lower. He was able to begin the slow, non-linear journey to improved health.
This wasn’t at all practical. I had a job in the city. We had three adolescent children and there was no high school where he settled.
But his health was so bad that we had to find a way to make it work.
And we have. For the past three years, he has lived on a little island in the Gulf of Georgia. I have lived in the city, four hours and two ferries away.
We commute. Back and forth.
At first we didn’t know why he did better in the bush. We hypothesized that it must be due to reduced electromagnetic radiation, and that could be part of it. But now we’re delving into the growing evidence that points to complex and intersecting factors that result in improved health for humans through contact with nature.
For example, Richard Louv notes that nature therapy helps control pain.
Louv also cites research from Japan in which indicators relating to stress were measured after forest exposure. The results are remarkable:
- Cortisol levels decreased by 13% after viewing a forest and by 16% after walking in it;
- Pulse rates and blood pressure levels of subjects were significantly lower after forest exposure;
- Parasympathetic nervous system activity, which is related to calmness, was enhanced by 56% after viewing the forest and 102% after walking in it; and
- Sympathetic nervous system activity, which increases with stress, decreased by 18% after viewing the forest and 19% after walking in it.
Given that stress is a primary contributing factor in autoimmune disease, Matthew’s improvement when he was living in the forest made more sense.
Better Mental Health
Exposure to nature improves mental health.
In an English study, 71% of subjects felt less depressed after a walk at a park, whereas 22% of subjects felt more depressed after a walk of similar length at an indoor mall.
But this isn’t really news.
The Atlantic published the essay Walking by Henry David Thoreau just after he died in 1862, in which he prophesied that our lack of engagement with the natural world, a trend which was obvious to him even then, was “destined to have a speedy limit”.
We may have put off this ‘speedy limit’ for 150 years, but I think we are now approaching it’s outer edges, as we face a growing epidemic of mental and physical health issues in North America.
Thoreau connected engagement from nature with mental and physical well-being. He wrote: “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields.”
But even if we can’t spend hours a day in the woods and hills and fields (and even if there are no woods or hills or fields nearby) we can still connect with nature.
Because nature is trying to find its way back into our lives almost everywhere we go.
We need to start looking for it.
Making space for it in our neighbourhoods and time for it in our lives.
Rather than trying to return to some impossibly idealized primordial state, Richard Louv advocates moving forward into a realistic and sustainable future in which we develop a ‘hybrid mind’ that uses technology to process data and nature to “accelerate our ability to learn and feel.”
Through reconnecting with nature, perhaps we can be well again.