“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” -Lao Tzu
The author and journalist, Florence Williams is zigzagging through a patch of prickly pear cacti toward the San Juan river. Walls of jagged hematite rock and bluffs of soft red soil tower above her. She steps carefully, looking for a grassy opening where she can sit and watch the water flow by.
She finds the perfect spot and rests for ten minutes of contemplation.
It’s been days since she’s looked at a computer or cell phone. And besides the 12 electrodes strapped to her head, analyzing her brain waves, she is completely at one with nature.
Thoreau had his cabin. Whitman had his Leaves of Grass. And Virginia Woofle found inspiration via soft strolls in the countryside. But Williams, hooked up to a portable EEG device, is on an outdoor study trip with cognitive psychologist David Strayer. They’re looking to answer what poets, writers, and philosophers have intuitively known all along…
What happens to our brain on nature?
Humans evolved outdoors, so it should be no surprise how connected — and dependent — our bodies and minds are to nature. Studies show that people who can see trees and grass from their hospital window recover faster. Kids that spend more time outside get higher test scores. In Illinois, researcher Frances Kuo found that the more trees a housing project had, the lower the crime rate.
Obesity, depression, and low sex drive are all associated with too much time insight. Artificial light gives us the power to dictate when our days begin and end, but our human hard-wiring isn’t fooled. It’s when our eyeballs meet natural sunlight that our photoreceptors tell our brain to start pumping that sweet, sweet serotonin.
In the 1980s, the Japanese developed Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” If you’re picturing naked bodies swan diving off tree branches into fresh piles of leaves, you might not be far off. But forest bathing is less about full body submersion and more about activating all the senses while in nature. It’s about feeling the wind, hearing the stream, and smelling the pine. It’s as simple as watching the trees while taking massive gulps of the fresh air they help create.
From the East to the West, more data shows that time spent in nature helps people combat high stress, high blood pressure, and depressed moods. How many times have we, or someone we know, reached for medications or supplements to treat these symptoms?
This isn’t to say that medications and professional therapies aren’t necessary for some. But for many of us who have searched how and low for something to take the edge off of daily stress or anxiety, the answer could be waiting on the other side of our front door.
A few weeks later, Florence Williams is back in the city. She receives her EEG report from Strayer. It’s just as they expected.
Strayer’s hypothesis was that participants who sat in nature, compared to other test subjects who sat in a busy parking lot, would have a more relaxed prefrontal cortex and an increase in alpha brain waves.
The prefrontal cortex is our brain’s command center. When it goes on and on without dialing down to relax, it strains like an overused muscle. Alpha brain waves serve as a bridge between our conscious and subconscious mind. They help us keep calm and feel content.
The study shows that when participants trade a concrete jungle for a slow-paced nature trail, frontal lobes relax and alpha waves sprout. And to reach the level of human flow we’re after, a surplus of alpha waves is non-negotiable.
Shin to bul ee (Body and soil are one.) -Ancient proverb
It’s nice to see the data catch up with what most of us already know to be true. But scientific tests and control group experiments will never fully explain the intrinsic connection humans have to nature.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the easiest way to reconnect with ourselves on a personal level is by detaching from our personal point of view. Standing among the trees, under the stars, or on a mountain peak forces us to take pause. It reminds us that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.
It’s when we remember how small we are as individuals that we can ask bigger questions: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What am I doing to make this world a better place?
There’s a reason people say things like, “the walls are closing in” when they’re stressed out. It’s because the daily hustle of modern life shrinks our point of view. It blinds us to the world living outside of the bounds of our ego. We hear it all the time, “I just need to get away. I need an escape.” That’s nature calling.
The next time you feel blocked, stressed, or the general malaise of life creep in, the cure might be as simple as hitting a nature trail, staring at the moon, or putting your feet in the ocean.
If you want to reconnect with yourself, remember: You’re connected to everything