The power of nature

katie curham smiling in a field of sunflowersSimple as it sounds, connecting with nature can make you feel better. Being in contact with nature, even in small ways (like noticing the spring flowers or putting a plant in your office), can take you a step away from your daily grind, and lead you to feel more positive and calm. Dr. Katie Curhan, Ed.D., a former postdoctoral scholar in the department of psychology, sat down with BeWell in 2010 to explain the science behind nature’s restorative power.

When discussing the benefits of preserving the environment, the topics usually pertain to society in general or the earth itself. Is there a more direct personal benefit?

It’s true that most discussion about environment issues tends to center on how helping nature in turn benefits humanity and the earth at large. But nature can benefit the individual’s psyche, too. Some of the documented benefits that can come from human interaction with nature are: reduced stress and anger, better cognitive performance, increased positive affect (including feelings of calm and awe), a sense of connection to something larger than the self, and a more concrete awareness of the life cycle.

Do we have any evidence that being in contact with nature can improve a person's sense of well-being?

Yes. Numerous studies suggest that activities in natural settings or exposure to natural features have important stress reduction and restoration effects. One study showed that hospital patients whose window views consisted of deciduous trees rather than brick walls recovered from surgery more quickly, had fewer injections of pain killers, and had fewer negative comments written about them in nurse logs. Another study found that after experiencing mental stress (e.g. the completion of a demanding cognitive task like a really hard math problem), participants who walked for forty minutes in an urban area heavily populated with trees and other vegetation reported more positive emotions and performed better on subsequent cognitive tasks than did participants who walked in a pleasant urban environment without greenery.

Is it important for children to be in contact with the natural world?

Not only does nature have the same restorative effects on children as it does for adults, but contact with plants and animals provides opportunities for influential lessons for children about the nature of life — its cycles from seed to rot, spring to winter, caterpillar to butterfly. Nature provides great metaphors for helping children understand complex concepts like puberty, the birth of a sibling, or the death of a grandparent. Further, given the chance to nurture, children can develop a greater sense of responsibility from caring for a plant or pet. Dr. Maria Montessori postulated that a connection to nature is of fundamental importance to successful childhood development and instructed that plants and small animals be placed in Montessori classrooms. One of my favorite Montessori quotes is: “But if for the physical life it is necessary to have the child exposed to the vivifying forces of nature, it is also necessary for his psychical life to place the soul of the child in contact with creation.”

What is ”biophilia”?

Several scientists have posited that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology. Biologist E.O. Wilson wrote a great deal about the concept of biophilia, which he described as "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” Taking an evolutionary perspective, he reasoned that our affinities (and phobias) for nature have been influenced by adaptations needed for survival in hunter/gatherer and agrarian societies.

What are some ways in which people can integrate nature into their daily lives?

Most of us do not have the time or resources to take a daily hike, but fortunately more localized, smaller doses of nature also can increase psychological well-being. Here are some relatively simple ideas:

  • Put a plant in your home or office
  • Put up nature photos or screen savers that depict nature vistas or water scenes
  • Shop at the local farmers market
  • Exercise outdoors
  • Take leisurely walks in the greener areas of campus and Palo Alto
  • Learn the names of your local flora (recognition increases appreciation, and self-guided nature walk guides can be obtained online from the university as well as from the city of Palo Alto)
  • Raise a fruit, herb, or vegetable plant, ideally from seed to harvest (e.g., my kids and  I grew strawberries in a patio table pot this year)
  • On weekends, visit local natural resources. Bay Area residents are lucky to live in a place with many nature areas and a climate that allows their exploration!

Any parting words of wisdom?

As with most psychological phenomena, there is likely to be variation in which types of interactions with nature have the greatest positive impact on an individual’s sense of well-being. For example, my daughter has a strong aversion to bugs (except ladybugs), so we avoid buggy areas in our outdoor romps. Also, different types of nature have different connotations based on one’s previous experience. I grew up in Colorado, and the vanilla-like smell of ponderosa pines will always have a calming influence on me. For someone else, it might be the height of a redwood tree, the pink of a cherry blossom, the feel of the dirt, or the roar of the surf that brings a particularly salient sense of restoration.

Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna Ryan.

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