Posts Tagged ‘Nature and the brain’

Perhaps you saw the first episode of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II, the documentary I mentioned in my last post, which is currently being screened in Australia on Channel 7. If you didn’t, or even if you did, please turn your mind off other things and take a few minutes to look at this promotional trailer.

Having watched the trailer and before reading on, think about some of the emotions that the scenes evoked. Did you experience awe, joy and amusement for example? Were your feelings more positive after the viewing than before? Do you think that looking at nature content like this improves your general sense of well-being?

These are the kind of questions that the BBC, the producers of Planet Earth II, also posed and sought answers to. They recruited a leading authority on human emotions and well-being, Dacher Keltner to help them.

Based at the University of California, Berkley, Professor Keltner is a social psychologist who is a leader in the study of the biological and evolutionary origins of the positive and benevolent or “prosocial” human emotions such as compassion, love, gratitude, awe, aesthetic pleasure and humour. Apart from his impressive academic publications, he is the author of the best-selling, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. He is co-director of the Greater Good Science Centre (a visit to the Centre’s website is highly recommended).

As some of Keltner’s work has focussed on the impact of nature on our positive and benevolent emotions, he was a very appropriate person to undertake the kind of survey that the BBC required.

The way Keltner and his team went about the task was to sample adult members of TV viewing audiences in the UK, USA, Australia, India, Singapore and South Africa, 7500 people in all. The recruits were assigned randomly to view one of five short video clips: two from Planet Earth II (just like the one you may have just viewed), one showing a montage of news reports, one comprising scenes from a TV drama and the last presenting an excerpt from a DIY instructional video.

Emotional responses before and after viewing the clips were assessed using a questionnaire that measures positive emotions, a stress scale and facial mapping technology that measure a viewer’s subconscious (emotional) facial responses when viewing a video.

The producers of Planet Earth would have been very pleased with the findings of the survey. Watching content from Planet Earth II produced:

  • significant increases in feelings of awe, contentedness, joy, amusement and curiosity, but
  • reduced feelings of tiredness, anger and stress.

Some fancy statistical analyses demonstrated that these effects could indeed be traced to the kind of content viewed – natural history versus that in the control clips.

It is unlikely that Keltner and his colleague would have been surprised by their results. Evidence from 150 or so studies give scientists strong grounds for believing that exposure to nature, whether direct or via media of one kind and another, reduces stress, increases calm and improves mental efficiency and creativity.

There is also growing evidence that contact with nature produces “elevating” effects whereby our minds are expanded, our morality strengthened and our concern for others deepened. In short, “nature makes us nicer” (as well happier and smarter).

Given this scientific reality, why is it such a struggle to get people to listen to the message and to take advantage of it, especially as tapping into the reality can be done so easily? One minute of gazing at a stand of Tasmanian eucalypts in a university campus was all it took to heighten feelings of awe in young adults – feelings that were associated with a display of diminished self-centredness and heightened ethical sensitivity.

There is no suggestion here that a minute of immersion in nature is all it takes to change a person’s long term well-being and attitude to others. But the finding does demonstrate just how responsive the human brain is to the sensory richness, beauty, awesomeness, limitless diversity and, yes, humour of nature.

Keltner would agree, I am sure, that a worthwhile step towards “elevating” individual human behaviour and creating less violent and more compassionate human societies is to enhance people’s connectedness with the natural world.

And we need to be taking such steps in today’s world. Do you agree?

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In a scene from his latest documentary, Planet Earth 2, Sir David Attenborough is surveying a natural landscape from the basket of a floating hot-air balloon.  “It’s impossible not to be impressed by the sheer grandeur, and splendour and power of the natural world”, he remarks.

That, a cynic might say, is the kind of thing you would expect him to say, given that he has been rewarded handsomely, materially and otherwise, for spending much of his life immersed in the natural world. Surely his exceptionally privileged career as a naturalist and documentary maker has given him a romanticised view of nature (some might say).

Even a less cynical person might be tempted to think that Sir David’s enthusiasm is a unique product of the extraordinary opportunities he has had to revel in the “grandeur”, “splendour” and “power” of the natural world.

There is undoubtedly some truth in this view, but it is far from the full picture.

The biological foundations of Sir David’s passion for nature are shared by everyone. We all come into the world with a brain that has an inherent disposition to seek and to enjoy nature. This disposition, known scientifically as biophilia, contains the potential for a profoundly enriching relationship with nature. We have to accept, however, that biophilia is thought to be a “weak” biological tendency, meaning that regular and positive interactions with the natural world are necessary if it to flourish in the human psyche and behaviour.

Fortunately, it does not necessarily have to be the world of wild nature that Sir David has experienced so extensively. Biophilia can be nurtured in all sorts of “green spaces”, including gardens, parks and other forms of domesticated nature. Even representations of nature in photos and paintings are able to provide some of the emotional building blocks of biophilia.

The building process works like this:


  • we have an encounter with nature in some form (flower, native animal, sunset, panorama, seascape, for example);
  • in response, brain chemicals, notably dopamine, trigger positive or “feel-good” emotions such as pleasure, joy, tranquillity, calmness and wonder; and
  • these pleasant and rewarding feelings motivate us to repeat the experience.


It is true to say that the process cultivates a form of subtle addiction. It tends to make our contacts with nature “self-multiplying” – the more contacts we have, the more we seek. That is why people who have gardens, compared with those without, are more likely to visit parks and other green spaces, and to take their children with them. And the children who are exposed to green spaces in this and other ways are more likely to become nature seeking and nature valuing adults.

A great thing about the process is that it requires little conscious management by us, apart from putting ourselves in touch with nature is some appropriate way to begin with. Once we have initiated a nature experience, our senses, emotions and unconscious cognitive processes take over – often in ways that range well beyond simply being “impressed”.

The “grandeur” of nature, for example, can


  • provide a profound sense of satisfaction and joy
  • transport us from the here-and-now to places beyond ourselves
  • make us kinder and more sociable
  • give us a sense of unity or “at-one-ment” with nature, others and the cosmos in general.


The eminent Australian biologist, the late Professor Charles Birch defined “at-one-ment” as the “experience of oneness with ourselves, with others, with the world, with the universe and with God”. It is, he says, the “most ultimate encounter”, the “opposite of being adrift and separate from the rest of existence”.

Urban environments can never lead us to at-one-ment, but nature can.

Possibly (and hopefully), it is a deep, intuitive inkling of this fact that is at work motivating some city dwellers to pay more for accommodation near green spaces. In research conducted in Vienna, Dr Shanaka Herath of the University of Wollongong found that apartment prices dropped by 0.13 – 0.26 % for every 1% increase in distance from the nearest green space. Similar findings have been reported from cities in the UK, Canada and South Korea, he says. Judging by anecdotal reports from buyers agents, the same is true of Australian capital cities with some buyers prepared to pay up to 10% more for homes with greenery around them.

Maybe this is telling us that biophilia is a more robust trait than it is generally thought to be.

Even if that is the case, we still must heed the call made by Sir David in Planet Earth 2:

Now, over half of us live in an urban environment. My home, too, is here, in the city of London. Looking down on this great metropolis [as he was at the time], the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking.

But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world.

Yet, it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And surely, [it is] our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.

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When the Sydney Morning Herald recently published a photo of a cute puppy with the caption, “Thiscute puppy puppy can change your thinking”, I was immediately intrigued. The accompanying news item reported that researchers at the University of New South Wales had used a photo of a puppy in a study to test whether or not the human brain makes use of unconscious information when making decisions.

It has long been believed that decisions, solutions to problems, insights and other smart mental activity can take place without the input of conscious analytical thought. Such behaviour is called intuition and all manner of people, including Albert Einstein, have claimed to have relied on it. But is intuition real? That’s the question which Galang Lufityanto and his colleagues at UNSW set out to answer.

They had their subjects observe a cloud of dots that looked a bit like “snow” on a TV screen and decide which way the dots were moving, to the left or right. They used some fancy gadgetry to send an emotionally toned image to one eye of their subjects – but in such a way that there was no consciousness of the image. The images that were used would reliably evoke either positive or negative emotion.

Now comes the clever bit. When a positive image was sent, the dots in the display moved in one direction but in the opposite direction when the image was negative. What this set up enabled the researchers to test was whether or not receiving the unconscious emotional guidance improved the decisions subjects made about the movement of the dots.

And it did. Subjects became more accurate, faster and confident on the task. For this to have happened, unconscious emotions must have been guiding decision making.

But where does the puppy figure in all of this? Well, a puppy image was one in the set used to trigger positive emotions. No surprise there. And you also won’t be surprised that among the negative images was one of a snake poised to strike and another of an attacking shark.

Although this study was concerned primarily with intuition, it has something very interesting to say about the human brain’s processing of information from nature. The study confirms that the brain can absorb such information subliminally and convert it into emotional signals that are capable of influencing learning and thinking.

As I read about this study, the “dog in the room” phenomenon came to mind. Put people together with a dog and they are likely to nicer to one another or put a dog in any everyday scene for that matter and the scene will be viewed more positively by an observer.

And it is not only animals that fire the “niceness” networks in our brains. Other features and objects from the natural world do so – beautiful and awe inspiring scenery, for example.

All of this fits nicely with the neurological studies showing that viewing typical urban and natural scenes activates remarkably different areas of our brains. A particularly notable finding is that, in contrast to natural scenes, urban scenes are much more likely to mobilise the brain’s alarm centre, the amygdala. The amygdala helps us to deal with dangers and threats to our well-being but it tends to do so by committing the brain to the flight or fight ( or stress) response at the expense of “non-urgent” brain activities, like solving problems, thinking creatively, and being empathic and socially open and agreeable.

What’s more, the amygdala is biased towards remembering negative experience and maintaining the brain in a state of vigilance and apprehension. An excessively busy amygdala can wire our brains to be anxious, impulsive, self-centred and unhappy. For that reason, neuropsychologist Rick Hansen says it is very important to expose our brain to positive information as frequently possible. Doing this builds neural pathways associated with positive states of mind, sociability, reflection and efficient problem solving.

Evidence supporting Hansen’s view is growing steadily. A recent study found, for example, that after four days of immersion in nature, newcomers to such an experience improved their performance on a creative, problem solving task by a full 50%. And there is even more compelling support for Hansen in the evidence that children progress faster academically in school settings where there is access to nature, and workers in “green” offices are likely to be more productive as well as less stressed and satisfied.

Perhaps you can explore the effect of nature on your own thinking by comparing your success with crosswords or Sudoku puzzles in two settings: indoors and outdoors in a garden or park. Or in a more serious vein, find if it helps to think about a troubling personal or work problem in a natural setting of some kind.1172774-young-blond-girl-sitting-thinking-in-a-forest

Man sitting in wheelchair in a garden

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There have been several newspaper reports and commentaries recently holding up Finland’s education system as a model to be followed. Apparently Finland’s children lead the world in literacy, numeracy and other markers of educational progress. They manage this even though they do not start formal schooling until they are seven years old and they have more free play at school than children elsewhere. There is a mandatory 15-minute play break every hour during the school day. Fresh air, nature and regular physical activity are considered engines of learning. Outdoor play is encouraged even in the harsh Finnish winter. “There is no bad weather; only inadequate clothing” is a guiding maxim.

Finland’s approach to education is grounded in several entrenched and powerful cultural values. A high respect for and trust of teachers is one. Egalitarianism is another. A third – and the one that has really caught my attention – is referred to throughout Scandinavia as frituftsliv (free-tuufts-leave), which literally means “free air life”. Frituftsliv is a lifestyle philosophy that is a conspicuous part of educational policy not only in Finland but in other Scandinavian countries as well.

The central message of frituftsliv is the importance of experiencing the natural world directly in an uncomplicated way. This image of a three-year-old simply collecting sticks on a bushland track is highly likely to be a depiction of frituftsliv.

Object play

Frituftsliv is a relationship, not an activity. While the frituftliv’s deep emotional and spiritual connectedness can arise from many of the things we do in nature, most nature activities have nothing to do with frituftliv. Any activity in which the features and resources of nature are treated as means to an end is unlikely to qualify as frituftliv. That is why learning about nature as a hobby or as an academic undertaking is not frituftliv. Nor are “adventure” activities such as backpacking, rock climbing, mountaineering and white water rafting. Even living out-of-doors is not necessarily a frituftliv experience. The same can be said of activities that use or “consume” nature as a therapy or as a means of escaping urban life.

Frituftliv is an unconditional relationship with the natural world – a relationship with no strings attached. It involves encounter, an I-you rather than an I-it form of participation with nature. Frituftliv is an acceptance of nature as it is, with all the challenges it can pose and the discomforts it can deliver. In frituftliv, there is no attempt to change nature to serve one’s own purposes; rather it is a relationship of co-operation harmony or “oneness” with nature.

In a frituftliv relationship no purpose is needed to connect with nature – just as being with a loved one is a sufficient end in itself.

That is why having no purpose for seeking the companionship of nature is the best “purpose” for doing so.

The nature that most reliably evokes frituftsliv is “true”, authentic or undisturbed nature. Scandinavia is richly endowed with nature of this kind. Irrespective of whether it is part of the public estate or privately owned, Scandinavian nature is regarded as “free” – free in the sense of being accessible to all in accordance with the unwritten convention of allemansrätten – The Right of Public Access, which provides the possibility for everyone to visit someone’s else’s land for the purpose of engaging with nature.

This “right” is bound up with the belief that “free” nature is our true home and that frituftliv is the way back to that home. While the foundations of that belief are historical and philosophical, it is now supported by a strengthening scientific case. Having evolved in natural environments, our brains are adapted to the rhythms and forms (especially fractal shapes and patterns) of nature. When we give these brains of ours the stimuli they are looking for, we are rewarded with feelings of harmony and of “coming home”.

If you have experienced a campfire experience, you may recall these feelings of calm and contentment.

When looking into a fireplace we feel the flames alive and attracting our attention. No artificial light, like the cold mechanical lifeless light of a flashlight, will ever attract us in the same way. What is the difference between the dead flashlight and the living spirit of the flames, if not the fractal rhythms that so much stimulate our perception? (Hans Gelter)

People around camp-fire

This photo reminds me that frituftliv also provides a social experience that many people in our urban, high-speed society are missing, that of sharing a nature activity where participants are dependent on one another. Through such activities, frituftliv, recreates the tribal life with the same sense of security that comes from belonging to an interdependent group. This is a human resource and a form of human wealth that we have lost in our urban life. In this and other ways, frituftliv fulfils basic human needs and creates a sensation of wholeness.

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Have you ever returned to a very scenic place that you hadn’t visited for some time and found it to be more beautiful than you remembered?bluegum e

I frequently have that experience. With my days of full-pack bushwalking behind me, I am re-discovering many of the shorter day-walks I did in the early days of my bushwalking career. A few months back, I did one such walk, The Blue Gum Walk that is located in bushland on the northern margin of Sydney. Actually, it is a walk that is well-known to me as I have done it several times over the years. Nevertheless I was exhilarated – yes exhilarated – by the diverse beauty I encountered. I came away marvelling that such magnificent scenery could be found right on Sydney’s doorstep. I responded to the walk almost as if this was the first time I had done it. You might even say that I had discovered the walk again for the first time.

Why is it that my earlier very positive memories of the walk had dimmed to such an extent? Could I be suffering an unusual long-term memory problem along with whatever might be happening to my short-term memory?

I don’t think so. It is much more likely that my memory is working very much as it always has. In allowing the positive emotional content of good memories to erode over time, my brain is functioning in a typically human fashion. Generally speaking, the things that make us happy are not threatening to our survival – quite the contrary. This means that there is not the same imperative for our brains to remember such things. Things that make us happy are not likely to kill or injure us. Nasty things, on the other hand, could – so it pays our brains to be very efficient at remembering threatening experiences – especially the negative emotions like fear and disgust that such experiences evoke.

Our brains, in other words, are better at remembering the bad rather than the good things that happen to us. That is why Rick Hansen, author of Hardwiring Happiness, says that it is very important both to repeat and to dwell on happy experiences if we want them to leave a lingering beneficial legacy in our brains.

A consequence of my muted recall of the delights of The Blue Gum Walk was that I underestimated how enjoyable it was going to be. This is not surprising as expectations depend on memories.

An interesting possibility this raises is that we all tend to underestimate the positive return we will get from an anticipated nature activity. We may expect to get some pleasure from, say, a bushwalk, stroll in a park or garden visit, but less than we actually experience.

To test this possibility, Elizabeth Nisbet and John Zelenski conducted a couple of intriguing experiments at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. They took advantage of the fact that, on the Carleton University campus, it is possible to get from one place to another either along outdoor paths or through underground tunnels (popular in an Ottawa winter). In both studies, they randomly assigned participants (male and female adults, aged 16 – 48 years) to take walks either in the tunnels or outdoors along the paths through natural features. The researchers tested two predictions:

  • participants would enjoy walking outdoors more than indoors and that the outdoor walkers would feel more connected with nature;
  • participants would make forecasting errors, such that they would underestimate their enjoyment of the outdoor walk.

The results of the experiments supported both predictions. Walking outdoors produced better moods but the extent of the emotional buzz was not fully anticipated even though the predictions were about walks in familiar areas.

Nesbit and Zelenski draw this conclusion from their studies:

To the extent that affective forecasts determine choices, our findings suggest that people fail to maximise their time in nearby nature and thus miss opportunities to increase their happiness and relatedness to nature.

 In other words, lower expectations about the pay-off from nature activities means fewer such activities are chosen.

For those of us in the business of promoting greater society-wide engagement with nature, any guideline for helping people make pro-nature lifestyle choices is welcome. Nesbit and Zelenski’s findings may be suggesting just such a guideline, namely increase expectations about nature’s pay-offs.

If you asked Rick Hansen how this could be achieved, I am confident that he would emphasise two broad strategies:

  • Help yourself to pleasurable nature experiences often and regularly – these can be as simple as spending a few minutes in a nearby park or garden;
  • Savour the experience deeply so that it stirs your brain’s memory networks into sustained activity.

Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff have written a book about savouring, a process of being deliberately mindful of pleasure and attentive to its source. They describe a range of techniques for savouring, including:

  • Be absorbed: Go with the “flow”. Stay with your feelings and try not to think about what is happening and why. Dwell in the moment and be aware of your oneness with the object of your contemplation. Ignore the presence of others and shut out distracting thoughts. Don’t rush for the camera – give priority to making a “psychological” record rather than a photographic or electronic one.
  • Sharpen perceptions: Accept nature’s implicit invitation to discover more. Let your attention take you deeper into the experience. Observe mindfully – listen, taste, feel, smell as well as look. Follow Rachel Carson’s suggestion to focus as if this is the last time you will have the experience.
  • Support memory storage: After allowing time for absorption, take a photo, make a sketch, or write a diary or journal entry. Reminisce about your experience with a friend. If appropriate keep a physical souvenir (a pebble, feather or leaf, for example).


As I have decided that I could do a good deal more savouring on my bushwalks, I am on the lookout for practical savouring activities to try. As an example, a friend has suggested spending half an hour of each bushwalk simply observing the insect and other life on a small patch of the forest floor or on the trunk of a tree. Other suggestions gratefully received (use the comments box if you like).

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LyrebirdIn reporting on a recent bushwalk she and her husband had done, my daughter Wendy mentioned with some excitement that they had seen a Lyrebird. She added, almost as an aside, “and a snake”. (Experiences with snakes in Nepal as well as Australia have helped her to be reasonably matter-of-fact about the creatures)

Australia is home to almost all of the 10 most venomous species of snakes in the world. But Australian snakes do not pose a serious threat as they are shy creatures that avoid contact. Nevertheless, we are alert for snakes, especially during the warmer months, like now. Unfortunately a fear of snakes discourages some Australians, especially newcomers, from venturing into our beautiful bushland.

I talk about the fear of snakes later in this post but first I provide a context, which inappropriate as it may first appear, has to do with our love of living things.

I was greatly entertained this week by a video of Wendy’s granddaughter, Zoe, having “quality time” withWith Peter Rabbit January 2016 b her new pet rabbit, Peter. She squatted beside Peter (much as she is doing in the photo), gently patted him and then attempted a “cuddle” and a kiss.

Zoe has grown up with dogs in her life and loves animals.

This is not at all surprising or unusual because, like all of us, she was born with a brain that has a positive bias towards living things.

From as early as four months of age, infants pay more attention to animals than to toys including furry toy animals. And they are equally attentive to snakes – with no sign of fear.


Another snake charmer

Why then do human (and other primate) adults usually have a fear of snakes that is stronger than the fear of almost anything else? It may appear to be a rational or intellect-driven fear because snakes are known to be capable of harming or killing humans. But so too are guns and knives. What’s more, the fear of snakes resides in many people who have little or no contact with them. So what’s going on?

An answer that is gaining increasing scientific support is contained in the “snake detection theory” which is based on the idea that evolution has given us brains that are “prepared” to learn very quickly to fear snakes.

Researchers at the University of Virginia, Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache, have pioneered the study of the origins of the fear of snakes in children. They report that children are very good “snake detectors”. Shown a set of eight photos – seven depicting caterpillars and one showing a snake – three-year-olds were quick to find the snake photo. By contrast, they took longer to find the caterpillar in a group of snake photos. The same thing happens when the children were asked to distinguish snakes and frogs. Picking out snakes seems to be easier, especially so, according to another of LoBue and DeLoache’s studies, if the snake is moving in its characteristic writhing motion.

The posture of the snake may also affect the speed of detection. Using a task that required people to pick out a snake image from an array of flower images, Nobuo Masataka and his colleagues found that both children (aged 3-4 years) and adults were faster identifying snakes if the snakes were shown in an attack position. According to their parents, the young children in this study had never been exposed to snakes before. Not only had they never seen a real snake, they’d never seen any images of snakes, or toy snakes.

These findings point to the likelihood that humans are hard-wired to be quick at detecting snakes and possibly other potential predators such as crocodiles. Snake detection theory goes a step further, however. It proposes that snakes have played a major role in the evolution of our brains, specifically our incredibly complex and accurate visual systems. Both snakes and primates, including our species, evolved in tropical regions and had plenty of opportunities to interact. Snakes are hard to spot, so if their threat was strong enough, natural selection might have favoured primates with keen eyesight and quick reaction times.

The neurological evidence supporting this theory is starting to be uncovered. At the base of the brain, there is a very busy visual relay centre called the pulvinar region. Compared to that in other mammals, this region is disproportionately large in humans and primates. It is thought that the pulvinar is particularly important in picking out important visual information in cluttered environments.

To test this idea, researchers inserted probes into the brains of captive-bred Japanese macaques who had never encountered snakes. Activity in the pulvinar region was monitored as the macaques were shown various images – monkeys’ faces, monkeys’ hands, simple geometric shapes, and snakes – under carefully controlled conditions. The pulvinar region was found to be especially attentive to images of snakes. It didn’t matter whether the snakes were coiled up or stretched out; the macaques’ neurons responded similarly to snakes in each position. Since these monkeys had never seen a snake before, the neural responses appear to be hard-wired rather than a result of experience.

Another response that appears to be hard-wired into the human brain completes the biological foundation of our fear of snakes. LoBue and DeLoache demonstrated the link in infants in the first year of life. In a landmark study, they presented infants with videos of moving snakes paired with videos of other animals – giraffe, rhinoceros, polar bear, hippopotamus, elephant, and large bird – moving at the same speed. The videos were played under two different conditions – accompanied by either an audio track of an adult sounding fearful or one in which the adult sounded happy.

When the happy voice was playing, the infants paid no more attention to the snake than to the other animals, but with the fearful voice, their attention was directed much more on the snake.

What LoBue and DeLoache appear to have shown us is that the human brain has evolved to learn more quickly about certain kinds of animals – those that have posed the greatest threats to our ancestors. Maybe it takes very little to trigger fear (and other negative feelings) where snakes (and possibly other threatening creatures) are concerned. We see friends or family acting fearfully and we are persuaded very quickly to adopt the same behaviour. As Martin Seligman proposed over 40 years ago, animals, including us, are “prepared” to learn some lessons very fast.

Our fear of snakes is just one small aspect of the amazingly complex way in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviour are influenced by nature. Reflecting on this, the architect of the biophilia concept, E.O. Wilson says,

We’re coming to realize that there’s something a lot more complicated and deep and wondrous in the development of the human mind, than what we had imagined.

Ours are minds, Wilson adds, that have “a strong residue of the environments in which we evolved”. And those are natural environments.

Somewhat like the tracks on a CD that are moulded by an environment of sound, our brains have been richly and subtly attuned to natural environments. And just as a CD requires the right kind of player to perform, the human brain responds optimally to the stimulation of nature.

That is why our brains have the strong positive bias towards nature we see in infants like Zoe. The image of Zoe reaching towards Peter captures something of that bias and is a symbol of what our brains would have all of us do – embrace nature and be showered with benefits for doing so.



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If you asked Australians to nominate their favourite TV comic character, the odds are that it Gary McDonaldwould be one created by this man, Gary McDonald.

His Norman Gunston, for example, continues to be recalled as a phenomenon of TV satire, and his hapless Arthur Beare in Mother and Son extracted bitter-sweet humour from a masterfully rendered love-hate relationship with a manipulative mother.

Gary McDonald as NormanGary McDonald mother and son

But this same Gary McDonald is also remembered with respect and admiration for his struggle with a very different persona – that of the “clown-who’s-crying-inside”.

A chronic sufferer from hyper-anxiety, he suffered a severe depressive episode in 1993 while attempting to revive The Norman Gunston Show. He responded well to cognitive-behaviour-therapy (CBT), learning in the process the importance of monitoring and constructively managing self-talk. Gary has drawn courageously and frankly on his experience to help others with mental-health problems and to advocate for improved mental health services.

In a recent ABC documentary for Mental Health Week, he once again shared his experiences Gary McDonald in natureand insights. The documentary showed him in the rural home to which he moved in order to sustain his recovery and safeguard his mental well-being. There he raises chooks, gardens, walks and goes fishing, revelling all the while in the isolation, seclusion, peace and beauty of his sanctuary.

I was very pleased that Gary linked his on-going mental well-being to his nature-connected way of life because there is overwhelming evidence that one of the best things we can do to maintain our mental health is to have regular doses of vitamin G (for green space).

There is also growing evidence that the efficacy of standard therapies such as CBT is improved if nature is added to the mix. In one recent study, 63 patients with depression were assigned to weekly CBT sessions in one of three different settings – an arboretum, a hospital or a community facility. The patients who had their therapy in the arboretum showed the greatest overall reduction in symptoms and the odds for their complete recovery was 20-30 % higher than was observed for medication alone. What’s more, the arboretum group also had a pronounced reduction in the physiological markers of stress (stress hormone levels, blood pressure, heart rate, for example). The researchers concluded that nature does not simply provide a congenial setting for therapy it can be therapeutic in and of itself.

Gardening is one way by which the therapeutic effects of nature can be tapped. In a study from Norway, patients with moderate – tending to severe – depression were engaged in sowing, germinating, potting, planting, cultivating and cutting vegetables and flowers for three hours twice a week for a total of 12 weeks. The patients were also free to indulge in other garden activities such as strolling around, admiring the plots and looking for insect life. Depression scores were found to have improved significantly and were still lower at follow-up testing three months later.

A particularly interesting supplementary finding was that improvement was associated with “fascination” – the extent to which patients were “caught up” or “lost in” the gardening activities. This may have something to do with the fact that when our minds are focussed on Negative self talk ban activity we are less likely to engage in damaging self-talk or rumination (repetitive negative thoughts about oneself).

Rumination is known to be a risk factor for mental illness, so curbing it is a very useful therapeutic strategy. A team headed by Gregory Bratman from Stanford University found that something as simple as a 90 minute walk in a natural environment (compared with a comparable walk in an urban one) reduced the subjects’ reported level of rumination as well as the neural activity in the area of the brain linked to the risk of mental illness.

According to Bratman and his team, these results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.

I would go further and say categorically that such areas are essential for mental health. Some of the best-established effects of urbanization concern mental well-being. Evidence from several studies indicates that city dwellers have a substantially increased risk of anxiety disorders (by 21%) and mood disorders (39%). For the major psychotic illness, schizophrenia, incidence is almost double in people born and brought up in cities. The social stress of city life may be an important factor accounting for these differences.

We can’t all be like Gary McDonald and make our home in a rural sanctuary, but we can make greater use of the natural areas and green spaces that may be available to us. And we can all support efforts to make our cities greener and to preserve surviving natural areas.

Sitting in a park 2Forest destruction b Tarkine

In a society estranged from the natural world, our sanity becomes imperilled, no matter the material comforts and conveniences we enjoy. By contrast, a life of affirmative relation to nature carries the potential to be rich and rewarding. (Stephen Kellert, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World)

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