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Mindful : June 2013
the idea that we have an innate emo- tional connection with nature. He called it the Biophilia Hypothesis. And according to Stanford University researcher Gregory Bratman, whose work builds on Wilson’s and focuses on how experiences of nature affect cogni- tive function and mental health, “Our brains come from a time when we were adapted to natural settings, not urban settings. Seeing trees and growing things naturally kicks up our parasym- pathetic nervous system and results in our feeling more relaxed. We have an innate connection to nature, given our evolutionary history.” The problem, Louv points out, is that evolution doesn’t work that fast. It is still in our nature to need nature, and we suffer without it. “ What are the benefits that nature provides for human beings that we’re not paying attention to?” Bratman asks. “Urbanization is increasing at an alarm- ing rate. What are the repercussions for our mental health?” Current resea rch is showing the cost of our nature deficit, and the converse as well—that reconnecting with nature makes us healthier and happier. For instance, a Japa nese study showed that a walk in the forest—stimulating senses of smell, hearing, and touch while under a leafy, g reen canopy—increases positive feelings, boosts the immune system, and lowers blood pressure. They call it shinrin-yoku—“forest-bathing.” And it’s not just the concrete jungles and traffic jams of our cities that are divorcing us f rom nature. “ When we sit in front of a computer all day, or video games or television, we narrow ourselves down to the tunnel vision that comes with electronics,” says Louv. “Gra nted, you can go any where in the world on the internet, but you don’t use all your senses. So you’re not fully alive in those places you go. “Kids used to go outside and spend most of their developing years in nature,” he continues. “ Within a few decades, there’s been a virtual disappearance of that relationship.” Of course, we know intuitively that we need green. The problem for urban dwellers is how to get it. It’s hard to pick up and move to the country. Most of us can’t afford a weekend cottage by the lake. And a rushed walk past a park on the way to work doesn’t cut it. Here are three ways to reconnect with nature in the midst of a busy modern life. Make a Relationship “I have a daily practice where I sit in silence for 20 minutes and watch my breath,” says David Haskell. “Over the years it’s been very important to me, and I wanted to see if I could bring that approach to the study of biology.” Like most biologists, Haskell was fascinated by nature as a child a nd spent his time poking a round the ga rdens and woods near his home on the outskirts of Paris, France. Today he is a professor of biology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, a nd the author of The Forest Unseen: A Year ’s Watch in Nature. The book documents Haskell’s yea r of daily visits to one small patch of old- growth forest near the university cam- pus. “The practice of repeatedly giving my attention to one patch of Earth over a yea r caused me to open up my senses and to see more of the biological wonders of the world,” he says. “I realized how much I didn’t notice in everyday life because I wasn’t paying attention, how often my senses and attention were turned off. It was a good reminder to turn them back on—to see the changing quality of light through the seasons or how the sound- scape changes through a day.” By painstakingly obser ving—every day for 12 months, sometimes for hours at a time—the trees, bushes, flowers, birds, and a nimals of that patch of forest, Haskell broke down the all-too-common perception that nature a nd humanity are separate. “That dissolved for me. I had a sense of being part of a community of life. A very small area can offer a window to the whole. To sit down and watch one little place—it’s like using a pinhole cam- era to see much larger patterns. “For example, many of our drugs and antibiotics originally come from the soil, from obscure little soil fungi and microbes. It’s those tiny things a nd their interactions that produce the chemical complexities we ca n use in medicine. Yet how often in a doctor’s office are you reminded that these drugs you’re taking actually came from the soil?” We don’t have to take it to the lengths he did, but Haskell believes everyone can benefit from the practice of connecting with a natura l phenomenon of our choice. “Pick something and give it your atten- tion, repeatedly, for a year,” he suggests. “Trees, a park, flocks of pigeons. Most people don’t have the time to spend hun- dreds of hours looking at a forest. But it can be a short practice, just committing a few minutes each day.” Haskell tells the story of a city-dwell- ing friend who pays attention to one → 90% The average American spends 90% of his or her time indoors, according to a 2009 repor t from the Environmental Protection Agency. “Our brains come from a time when we were adapted to natural settings, not urban settings.” Gregory Bratman, Stanford University researcher 36 mindful June 2013 nature