Dr Oliver Sacks, author of the bestseller, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, has a friend with moderately severe Tourette’s syndrome. In his city environment, the friend has thousands of tics and verbal ejaculations each day – grunting, jumping, and touching things compulsively
But once when they were hiking together in a desert, Sacks was astonished to notice that the tics had completely disappeared. He attributed this extraordinary change in his friend’s neurological state to “the remoteness and uncrowdedness of the scene, combined with some ineffable calming effect of nature”.
There may be aspects of nature’s calming effect that are indeed hard to capture in words but there is absolutely no doubt about the reality of the effect. It has been documented in literally hundreds of studies.
It takes only a few minutes of exposure to a natural scene or even a picture of one for the symptoms of stress in mind and body to decrease and be replaced by the relaxation response (as expertly demonstrated by my friend Roger).
In Japan, relaxing in nature is taken very seriously. The people in this photo are engaged in shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”. As you can see, it simply involves taking in the atmosphere of a forest by walking in it. Sitting in a forest would do just as well. I guess the Australian equivalent of the practice could be called “bush bathing”.
For over 30 years Japanese scientists have been studying the effects of shinrin-yoku. The findings have been consistent and compelling. Blood pressure, stress hormone levels, central nervous system function and mood – all respond positively to the shinrin-yoku experience. As a result, health practitioners in Japan are now advocating shinrin-yoku therapy.
Why nature triggers the relaxation response is not clear but it is safe to assume that the answer lies in biophilia. As we have evolved to find nature attractive, it is logical that we will also experience it as comforting and calming.