Back in my late 20s, after my marriage had ended, I just couldn’t stand being in the city. I fled to the Mojave Desert every chance I got, because in the wilderness, with no people for miles upon miles, I felt less alone. That sounded crazy whenever I said it out loud, so I seldom did.
But this last week, when I read science journalist Florence Williams’ book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, I was happy to learn that I’m not the only one who finds companionship in nature. For instance, the developer of the phone app Mappiness, now with over 60,000 participants, reports that the joy people experience in nature exceeds the amount of joy they feel in cities by about the same amount that being with friends beats being alone.
Williams records her visits with neuroscientists, environmental psychologists, foresters, and other researchers all over the world, each intent on understanding the human-nature bond. Their studies demonstrate that exercising, or in some cases merely being in nature lowers levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, reduces sympathetic nerve activity, and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. In one of the more dramatic findings, after spending just three days in the woods, a group of Japanese businessmen had a 40 percent increase in NK, or natural killer cells, which protect us from viruses and cancer.
Of course, if we had half a brain, we wouldn’t need scientific experiments to prove that ambling down a dirt or sandy path, breathing the scent of pine or sage, makes us “happier, healthier, and more creative” than walking on concrete, breathing smog. We do in fact have an entire brain, but we primarily use only part of it while working and managing our daily lives, that part being the executive network, our frontal lobes. The neuroscientists Williams interviewed called this “top-down” thinking. While walking or otherwise enjoying ourselves in natural environments, we employ what they call “bottom-up” thinking or the “default network.” It revitalizes us to fully engage areas of our brain that we relied on for our first 199,000 years as Home sapiens.
One result, other than improved physical health and less depression, is often a burst of insight we wouldn’t have had if we’d stayed home. Great thinkers from Aristotle to Einstein “walked in gardens and groves to help them think,” as Williams put it.
The science is in and more is coming in each year, proving that humans need to spend time in the natural world. Sadly, the wild places we evolved in are vanishing. But that’s one reason why we need books like “The Nature Fix” to remind us of who we really are, of where we come from, and to awaken our healthy longing for a healthy world.