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The Nurture of Nature

Science & Spirit magazine July 2003

What if there existed a simple object found in everyday life that could relieve stress and anxiety, promote healing and increase powers of concentration? It appears likely that such “magic bullets” do exist, and that they come in the forms of trees or shrubs or even philodendrons. Just as plants lift their leaves to the sky, they likewise lift our spirits — helping us de-stress, recover faster, concentrate better and control impulsive behavior.

Of course, who hasn’t felt better after tending their tomato plants or walking in the park? But a growing body of scientific studies suggests even passive contact, like glimpsing nature from the window of a speeding car or looking at a picture of nature, can be as therapeutic as physically being in the midst of it. The bottom line: Nature can provide nurture — for the young, old, healty, and sick. It can nurture those in a car, a hospital, a dorm room, and even a prison.

Why does nature have this kind of power?

“We have two kinds of attention,” says Andrea Faber Taylor, an environmental psychologist and postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “Directed, attention, which we use when driving or doing our taxes, for example, is effortful and gets tired. When directed attention is fatigued, we feel trashed and it’s hard to make good decisions and to inhibit one’s impulses.

Faber Taylor says the best way to restore directed attention is by giving it a rest and relying on our second type of attention.

“Involuntary attention is what we use when we stop thinking in an effortful way, like when we watch a fire or meditate,” she says. “Looking at nature is soothing and undemanding of our attention. This uses our involuntary attention, enabling directed attention to rest and recover.”

Roger Ulrich and his colleagues at Texas A&M University found, for example, that commuters driving along scenic roads recovered more quickly from stressful driving conditions than those who commuted along highways full of billboards, buildings, and parking lots. Beyond that immediate benefit, Ulrich discovered something he called “inoculation” effect: Drivers who had taken the scenic route responded more calmly to stressful situations later on.

Ulrich also looked at patients recovering from gall bladder surgery. He found that those patients who had a view of trees from their hospital bed needed fewer painkillers and had a shorter hospital stay than those whose bedside view was a brick wall.

So, with all our efforts to alleviate stress in our lives — from aerobics and deep breathing to yoga and Zoloft, maybe the key to improved well-being is as simple as a garden. It doesn’t even have to be a big garden; even a little bit of green seems to make a big impact. Other studies suggest that having a plant in the room or looking at a picture of nature conveys similar benefits. After viewing a picture of a tree, subjects’ physiological measures of stress — increased pulse rate, sweat, and electrical activity under the skin — dropped dramatically within seconds.

“It used to be that we looked at cataclysmic events as stressors, like divorce or loss of a job,” says Kathleen Wolf, a research faculty member at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington. “But now we are seeing that our daily lives have constant small stressors and the cumulative effect is really significant. Consequently, even small, incremental contacts with nature in our daily lives are beneficial.”

In a University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, study, researchers looked at children living in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes housing project. In this study, all children were in the same socio-economic bracket; they were all African-American; the layout of their apartments was virtually identical; families were randomly assigned to their apartments; and everyone in the study lived on the second, third or fourth floors, the most optimal levels for viewing nature. The only difference in the living units was that, in some cases the original trees and grass had survived and in others the area outside the complex had been paved.

Girls who could see nature from their windows were better able to concentrate, delay gratification and control impulsive behavior as measured in standard psychological tests. These behaviors help children resist peer pressure, sexual pressure or other challenging situations, making them better able to avoid juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancy.

“Our theory was that public housing is a very fatiguing environment,” says Andrea Faber Taylor, lead investigator of the study. “We were wondering if certain settings were more restful than others. It turns out that small amounts of greenery seem to make a big difference, you don’t have to be living in Sherwood forests to enjoy nature’s benefits.”

These studies suggest that our environment can nurture our spirits — even from afar and even without any conscious effort on our part — and that we are all better served with more green spaces rather than fewer. By creating more green spaces, particularly in urban areas, we could minimize or at least buffer the stresses of every day life and the long-term costs in mental and physical health associated with stress. Now that’s a magic bullet.

The jury is still out concerning whether all humans respond so positively to nature or if it varies from culture to culture. Still, one thing is certain: When the naturalist John Burroughs said, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order,” he had the right idea.

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