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Posts Tagged ‘Stress reduction’

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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Birds dPhotographed barely two metres from the porch of my daughter and her husband’s house in Canberra, this kookaburra, along with his mate, is a regular visitor. As the photo shows, the house borders a large tract of native bushland that is ideal kookaburra territory.

Nevertheless, this fellow and his mate are happy to spend time (and possibly take up residence) quite close to the home of a pair of admiring humans.

This is by no means unusual as kookaburras are smart birds and quickly learn that where there are humans, there are often meaty tit-bits and other treats. They are even bold enough to pilfer sausages and the like from under the noses (sometimes quite literally) of picnickers and barbecue cooks.

I still have a very early childhood memory of the kookaburra that would snatch worms from under my father’s feet as he dug the garden. Knowing when he was on a good thing, the kookaburra appeared on the garden fence every morning, quickly managing to train my parents to feed him strips of meat for breakfast.

Feeding wild birds is a very common feature of human behaviour. It is a simple but compelling Birds cexpression of biophilia, the deep-seated human desire to affiliate with other living things. Surveys of wild bird feeders in North America and Europe show that between 45 and 75 per cent of households are actively engaged in feeding birds at home. Figures from New Zealand are similar and Australian studies indicate that between 38 and 80 per cent of households spend hard earned cash attracting birds to their backyards.

The Australian figures are intriguing because in this country artificially feeding birds is a very controversial issue and is actively discouraged by many authorities. The main reasons given by opponents of the practice are:

  • Diseases can be spread at feeding areas where large numbers of birds congregate
  • Artificial feeding may not meet all nutritional requirements and cause malnutrition and digestive problems in adult birds and developmental deficiencies in their young
  • Birds can become dependent on artificial food sources
  • Artificial feeding favours the spread of more aggressive bird species to the detriment of other species, leading to imbalanced populations

But the scientific validation of these concerns is far from complete according to ornithologist, Professor Daryl Jones.

Sure, certain diseases can be spread as birds crowd at feeders, but given the colossal numbers involved, these outbreaks are very rare indeed. Certainly, some types of foods, like bread, are inadequate and potentially harmful. But for most birds, the proportion of their overall diet made up of human-provided food is so small that little harm is likely.

Furthermore, Professor Jones says, there is no good evidence that backyard bird-feeding leads to dependency. “Almost all species investigated still find and consume a diet dominated by natural foods, and only visit to our bird tables for snacks”.

One thing numerous experiments have found, however, is that even a little extra food leads to earlier breeding, more chicks, and a greater chance of their surviving to the next year. In other words, feeding typically results in more birds.

The Australian reserve about the backyard feeding of birds is not shared by bird-lovers in the Northern Hemisphere. In the UK, for example, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Audubon Society actively and passionately advocate the feeding of birds, and claim it as the act of any genuine conservationist: ‘‘If you care about birds, feed them!”. In the USA, the bird seed industry is currently worth over a US$10 billion. American households now distribute over 500,000 tonnes of seed to suburban birds annually.

Harsher winters and much less natural food and habitat, in the UK particularly, probably mean that birds in the Northern Hemisphere benefit more from human assistance than those in our neck of the woods.

But the motivation for attracting birds by feeding them is broader than safeguarding the welfare of the creatures. There are also practical, social and psychological reasons, including:

  • Birds are attractive and interesting friends
  • Watching and listening to them can reduce stress and provide pleasure
  • They help with flower pollination and the control of plant pests
  • Having birds around fosters environmental awareness and guardianship

A survey conducted by Daryl Jones and Peter Howard found, as well, that a powerful explanation offered by backyard bird feeders was what the researchers labelled “environmental atonement”. Humans had caused so much damage to the natural world, their respondents explained, that feeding the wildlife was one way of giving something back, a personal attempt to redress the balance. This powerful component of the feeding story has since been identified among feeders throughout the world.

Where does all this leave Australians who could miss out on these benefits if they adhere to the recommendation not to feed wild birds?

Well, the choice may not be quite as black-and-white as it might appear. For one thing, many of us may be able to have bird-attracting gardens that have these basic features:

  • A variety of pollen, seed, fruit and nectar-producing Australian native plants
  • Plants of different textures and heights that provide shelter for a range of species sites

Your bird-friendly garden could also include one or two nesting boxes, water pond or birdbath – all safe from predators like the neighbour’s cat!IMG_0975

There may also be some place for bird feeding that is responsibly managed according to these guidelines:

  • Feeding stations are placed out of the reach of cats and other predators
  • Stations are cleaned daily and food removed after an hour
  • The time of day when food is provided is varied
  • Good quality food is used such as commercial nectar mixes or seed mixes (The cheaper supermarket seed does not contain sufficient nutrition for birds)
  • Only sliced meat is fed to meat-eating birds and only after careful consideration has been given to the impact that these birds will have on smaller birds
  • Feeding is ceased when more than 20 birds have gathered at the same station
  • Pets are fed indoors or remaining food is removed so common Mynas and other birds can’t share it
  • Providing food for the birds is made an occasional treat and not a daily event

I confess that I once tried unsuccessfully to set up feeding stations around my lawn to attract more regular visits from Rainbow Lorikeets but I am now content to let the flowering native trees and shrubs in my garden bring them. IMG_1426 cropped

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My Internet provider has just supplied me with a free replacement modem intended to speed up Internet traffic to and from my computer and thus save me time. The old modem was working fine as far as I was concerned but I was pressed to make the switch.

AQH3419.TIF

AQH3419.TIF

Isn’t this typical of technological development in our society? All of it is oriented towards increasing speed and saving time. If the truth be told, much of our way-of-life today is shaped by a pre-occupation with speed and “clock” time. Speed helps us to fit more into the day and respecting time enables us to schedule all that we need, want or are obliged to do.

But not all societies share our regard for clock time – what the Ancient Greeks referred to as chronos. In Nepal, for example, especially in the rural villages, the daily schedule is much more likely to be shaped by the timeliness of activities and events than the hands anddr A typical pastoral scene numbers on a clock. This is understandable in an agrarian society where daily activities are indissociably tied to rhythms set by the sun, seasons, crops, and animals. Conformity to these rhythms takes precedence over meeting clock-regulated schedules. Smart Western visitors to Nepal quickly learn to accommodate to the reality and elasticity of “Nepalese time”.

In significant ways “Nepalese time” is closer to the second notion of time that the Ancient Greeks had. That was Kairos, which is time that is referenced to events or activities or more precisely the “right” or opportune moment for such things. As is said in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible,

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that what is planted… and so on.

In all, there are 26 events or activities listed in the Ecclesiastes passage but I doubt that the list was intended to cover “everything”. There are quite a number I would be happy to see added to the list – all to do with nature. A time to walk (sit, meditate, swim, cycle, canoe, ski tour etc) in nature, for example, a time to experience challenges in nature; a time to find peace in nature, a time to seek healing in nature;

and a time to slow down in nature.

Writing about friluftliv, the Scandinavian tradition of embracing an open air life, Hans Gelter speaks of “slow experiences”. Many in modern societies are caught up in high-tempo family and working lives where finding the time to do all that has to be done is difficult. In such a regime, the risks of unhealthy fatigue (the kind that leads to burnout) and stress are great, not only from the frustration of not getting the main jobs done but also from little things – the disruptive hassles that cumulatively can also be very wearing. “This speedy life”, says Gelter, “has resulted in the longing for an alternative to such a hectic life, a search for ‘slowness’, for an opportunity to get a break to breath and regain energy”.

He adds: “Urban stressed-out people are searching for ‘slow experiences’ designed to temporarily ‘stop the speed’ of the hectic everyday life”.

Perhaps the most effective slow experiences are the ones that appear to suspend time altogether. These are the ones that involve personally meaningful activities that completely absorb us and give us deep joy. They are the activities that provide the experience of “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes. In a state of flow, self-awareness almost disappears and there is no consciousness of time.

All manner of activities can do this, especially ones that are freely chosen and are personally very meaningful. Art, sport and hobby activities are commonly associated with the experience of flow.

Nature provides ideal settings for “flow” activities. There are several reasons for this, a very importantIMG_0346 resized one being that natural settings help us to have the “being away from it all” feeling. In natural settings also, we are much more likely to be “fascinated”, that is, to have our attention captured by the sights, sounds and other sensory stimuli around us. More than any other context, natural settings help us to withdraw and slow down.

Hans Gelter is a strong believer in the power of nature to provide the kind of restorative slow experiences that urban dwellers are needing and seeking. To test his belief, he conducted a study in which 221 people undertaking field trips in nature were asked to have a short solo experience. They were asked simply to sit silently in a natural setting. After 10 minutes, the participants re-joined their groups and wrote down how the solo experience was for them – their thoughts and feelings during it.

Most (96%) wrote positively about their encounter with nature, many expressing gratitude for the experience and reporting feelings of happiness and freedom. The most common (66%) observations were about the impact of the experience of mood as expressed in terms like calm, relaxation, stillness, quietness, peace, harmony and restoration. Almost as common were thoughts about sensations – the sights, sounds, smells of the surroundings and the increased awareness of details.

Although this was not a rigorous study, the results are totally consistent with the findings of many formal, peer-reviewed investigations. It is particularly interesting that a mere 10 minutes spent alone in a natural setting was sufficient to alter people’s moods, mental rhythms and time sense.

 

Hans Gelter’s study is mentioned in his chapter in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftliv Way, edited by Bob Henderson and Vikander and published by Natural Heritage Books, 2007

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I never thought I would think, much less say, that taking a mobile phone on a nature walk could be a good idea. Mobile phones have become technological tyrants in the lives of many people. Sure, they are a great communication tool, but they are an insistent source of distraction that can almost run our lives if we are not careful. And they certainly have no place in nature-based activities undertaken to find stillness, inner calm and tranquillity – or at least so I believed.

My mind was changed by Matthew Johnstone’s story. Having had a long struggle with depression himself, Matthew is now creative director at the Black Dog Institute. He has been greatly helped by what he calls “eyes-wide-open” meditation (EWOM). This, he says, is a form of mindfulness meditation that is for people who are turned off by conventional insight or mindfulness meditation (MM) – or who find it difficult.

The cover of Matthew Johnstone's book on how to use photography in mindfulness meditation

The cover of Matthew Johnstone’s book on how to use photography in mindfulness meditation

MM involves quietening the mind by channelling attention onto an object, such as a candle flame, a feeling, a word or mantra – “om” is a popular one – or one’s own breathing, and then observing in a non-judgemental way the thoughts and feelings that pop into your head. The key ingredient of mindfulness says medical academic, Dr Craig Hassed, is that “we are conscious of what is going on but not in a self-conscious kind of way – so paying attention rather than thinking about ourselves”.

In contrast to MM, which adopts an inward looking perspective, EWOM turns our observing to the world beyond ourselves. It requires us to slow down, look around, and let our attention be attracted and held. It centres our awareness on the “out there” and enables our senses to dwell on “beautiful light, beautiful shapes [and] beautiful colours”. It locates us in the present and the here and now and, in so doing, quietens the sometimes unpleasant and damaging “busyness” of our minds.

Matthew found that a camera can be a great aid to EWOM.

“A camera in your hands is the reminder to consciously slow everything down from your breath, to your walk, to your thoughts… To take photographs, we have to stop, look around, focus and capture. It brings our awareness to what’s going on.”

The camera does not have to be a fancy one. The camera built into most mobile phones is quite suitable for the purpose. Indeed, a mobile phone camera is the perfect tool for EWOM, he says, especially for people on-the-go. A great advantage of your phone camera is that you probably have it with you all or most of the time. It is also convenient to carry and easy to use.

Based on Matthew’s remarks, I have identified some simple guidelines for using your camera phone as a EWOM tool (no doubt Matthew would suggest others):

  • Switch the phone to aeroplane mode so that you’re not distracted by texts, tweets and the like.
  • Let the camera remind you to consciously slow everything down – from your breath, to your walk, to your thoughts – and then take time to look.
  • Imagine the camera is asking you questions like, “What can you see that no-one else can? What grabs your heart? What makes you smile?”

This last guideline underlines the importance of photographing only what resonates with you – what you find yourself drawn to happily and involuntarily. These will be subjects that you find intrinsically interesting and attractive; subjects that you attend to effortlessly and without direction from your conscious mind. Psychologists refer to this involuntary, interest and emotion-driven attention as “fascination”, and contrast it with the fatiguing, voluntary, choice-driven (or directed) attention that is so much part of day-to-day life.

In the human mind, nature and fascination go together. Just as directed attention is an inescapable part of life in modern environments, fascination is the “normal” or typical form of attention in natural places. The psychological relationship between fascination and nature is forged by our emotions. The emotional centres in the human brain evolved long before the thinking parts and continue to have a big say in our behaviour including where and how we focus our attention.

There is now overwhelming evidence that fascination experienced in natural environments is therapeutic. Apart from countering stress, it enhances recovery from mental fatigue and associated mood problems. It is not hard to imagine that regular doses of fascination help relieve depression and anxiety, perhaps by giving the brain time-out from negative thoughts and feelings.

Matthew Johnstone practices EWOM in all kinds of settings. But I think that natural settings have more than most to offer as far as EWOM is concerned.

Matthew Jonstone b

And if the phone camera can help with EWOM then I am willing to concede that there is a case for taking a mobile phone (switched to aeroplane mode, of course) on a nature walk. If you are going to be “in the present and the here-and-now” anywhere, the “present and the here-and-now” in nature are as good as it gets.

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That’s right: it’s “body and soil” not “body and soul” are one (although that may be true as well).

This ancient piece of Korean wisdom along with modern scientific discoveries is motivating a remarkable Korean public health initiative – the establishment of healing forest centres throughout the country. Talk about regarding nature as an essential resource for human health and general wellbeing (as I did in my last post)! A better example is hard to imagine.

I have more to say about the Korean healing forest centres below, but first I want to reflect on a recent related article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Quite by chance, the article, which also deals with nature as a resource, appeared soon after my last post was published. The article is by Gareth Collins, President of the NSW Chapter of Australian Institute of Landscape Architects and is entitled Sydney’s Beauty Lies in Nature.

Sydneysiders could see this as a slightly provocative title, given the world-wide admiration of the OperaSydney Harbour aerial House, the Harbour Bridge and indeed the many stretches of attractive urban development around Sydney Harbour itself.

But Gareth reminds us that Sydney has around it vast areas of natural bushland, much of it still in a state of wilderness. There are also ribbons of bushland within the metropolitan area itself. These are located mostly along rivers and creeks draining into the harbour or into Botany Bay in the city’s south. (The river entering the harbour in the centre top of the photo actually passes through one such ribbon of bushland, now preserved as a National Park.)

P1180407_1024

Suburban streets are not far away

As Gareth points out, these areas of natural bushland form an immense green infrastructure that pervades our suburbs, along roads, streets, creek lines and in parks, and makes Sydney one of the greenest cities in the world. This natural beauty, he writes, is a gift to Sydneysiders, which must not be taken for granted.

Like many cities around the world, Sydney is short of land to accommodate a very rapidly expanding population. In response, urban density is increasing along with the expansion of suburbs into formerly rural area. This, together with the development of essential infrastructure, poses a great threat to urban greenery, especially so if there is a failure to acknowledge the value of natural spaces as a resource for life.

Gareth sets out a charter of what is needed:

All development needs to contribute to the total urban forest so that shade, clean air and natural beauty are on hand. Projects need to be co-ordinated to ensure high-quality public space is accessible to all. A visual and physical connection to the landscape and water needs to be provided and maintained.

 And why?

[To] create a healthier environment, a happier inhabitant, and a more productive city.

The mention of health brings us back to Korea and specifically to Saneum Healing Forest near Seoul. South Korea is like Sydney in a way; it is richly endowed with vast natural areas, forests of towering pine, oak and maple. Saneum is one of 37 state-run recreational forest scattered across the nation. The forests offer citizens easy and enjoyable access to the country’s vast natural resources with cheaper entrance fees than other private or government-owned recreational forests.

Saneum is also one of three similar forests where healing centres have been established. These centres offer programs based on strong science that links forest-based activities, especially walking, to a range of health benefits, including reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure and improved concentration.

In this respect the programs are very similar to ones provided in Japan under the umbrella of the shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) movement. Activities included in the healing programs are meditation, forest yoga, dancing, poetry reading and “gi” (energy) exercising (shown in the photo).

So successful have these programs been that the Korean government plans to have 34 healing forest centres in operation by 2017, one close to all major cities. So far this policy, based as it is on the demonstrated value of nature as a public health resource, has increased visits to forest from 9.4 million in 2010 to 12.8 million in 2013. This is an extraordinary increase given that the comparable trend in Australia and other Western countries is in the other direction.

I wonder if I will ever see “bush healing centres” in national parks or reserves in or near Sydney and other Australian major cities and towns?

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After his release from an Egyptian prison, Australian journalist Peter Greste wasPeter Greste asked what he would most like to do. His answer was:

Watching a few sunsets. I haven’t seen one of those at all for a very long time, watching the stars, feeling the sand under my toes — the little things.

He went on to say:

You realise it is those little beautiful moments of life that are really precious, and spending time with my family of course.

That’s what’s important, not the big issues.

It is interesting and significant that the “little things” Peter mentions are all centred on nature. Being deprived of them reminded him of how precious and important such little things are.

I am grateful for his reminder because it is easy to forget that simple encounters with the natural world are essential for mental and spiritual wellbeing. They are literally “mind changers” – lifting our mood, calming and refreshing us, making us more sociable and providing us with restoring moments of stillness.

Prompted by Peter’s remarks, I have compiled a list of ways of having these encounters at home or relatively easily in other places. Most of the list come from an excellent blog, Be a fun mum. The blog’s author is “Kelly”, herself a mum with four children. I was greatly impressed by what Kelly had to say about herself and about the purpose and aim of her blog. Her site is well worth visiting especially if you are a parent.

Although the list of activities Kelly has drawn up is intended for parents and children, many of her suggestions are suitable for people of all ages. These are the ones I have chosen along with a few of my own.

Why not try some today, remembering to focus as completely on the experience as you can. You may find that breathing slowly and deeply helps you to immerse yourself in some of the more passive activities – watching a sunset, listening to birds and lying on grass, for example.

 

1. Go outside and feel the sun on your face for 1 minute.Clouds 2

2. Look at the clouds.

3. Watch where the wind moves for 2 minutes.

4. Walk along a beach at dusk.

5. Watch a sunset.

6. Look at the stars.

7. Look at the full moon.

 

IMG_1426 cropped8.Watch the birds in nearby trees.

9. Count the birds (and perhaps try to identify them).

10. Listen to bird songs and calls.

11. Look for a bird’s nest in spring.

12. Listen to a CD of bird calls.

 

 

IMG_114613. Drop pebbles into still water and watch the ripples.

14. Listen to natural running water for 5 minutes.

15. Notice the reflection of the sun on water.

16. Skim a rock on water.

17. Paddle in a shallow stream.

18. Visit a waterfall.

19. Notice how the raindrops look on a flower, leaf or go outside in the early morning and look at dew on grass.

 

20. Look for butterflies.

21. Watch how a beetle moves.

Watching fish in garden pond22. Watch ants carry food to their nest.

23. Watch goldfish in an indoor aquarium or garden pond.

24. Watch skinks and/or other lizards in your garden.

25. Study the webs of orb spiders.

26. Smell flowers.

 

27. Crumple leaves (of aromatic plants like eucalypts and native mint bushes) and smell them.

28. Feel the bark of different trees.

 

29. Take photographs of nature and make them into a photo book.

30. Climb a tree (onto the lower branches will do).

31. Have a meal in your garden.

32. Lie on grass for a short time.View up an angophora

33. Walk on grass barefoot.

34. Sit under a big tree and look up into the branches.

35. Read a book outside.

36. Climb on rocks.

37. Go for a short walk to look at neighbourhood gardens or to a nearby park.

 

38. Look at greenery outside the window for 5 minutes.

39. Arrange flowers inside your home.

40. Go for a drive and look at the scenery.

41. Borrow books about nature and wildlife from your local library.

42. Go for a “green” walk in the rain.

43. Cook on an open fire.

44. Go for a family torchlight walk in a garden or park.

 

Something else you might find interesting to do is to think about the answer you would give to the “thing you would most like to do” question, if you  found yourself in Peter Greste’s situation.

My own list would include: listening to bird calls at dawn, looking at my fernery in dappled sunlight and looking at the photos of my bushwalking and trekking trips.

You are more than welcome to share your list as a comment.

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Renowned Australian author, Geraldine Brooks, has made the provocative but valid point that humanityhigh rise apartments is undertaking the most monumental experiment in the history of evolutionary biology. As a species, we have evolved for an uncrowded life in the openness of natural environments, but we are now flocking to live in very different one – the dense and crowded environment of cities and towns.

This movement is abundantly clear to us in Australia – one of the world’s most urbanised countries – but the United Nations estimates that by 2050, 69% of all humans will be concentrated in urban centres.

This wouldn’t be happening if there weren’t enormous material, social and cultural advantages to urban life. There is no denying that the quality of life we enjoy is attributable in many ways to the urbanisation of our society.

So not surprisingly, there is currently great enthusiasm for expanding our cities outwards and upwards – especially upwards. Indeed, we can be forgiven for thinking that the goal of many politicians, planners and developers is to cram as many apartments or units as possible on every available piece of urban land. Forget about uncrowded openness – higher density is the new desirable, it seems.

But increasing housing and population density comes with hazards.

  • As the population of residential buildings increases, trust cooperativeness, friendliness and altruistic behaviour tend to decline. An interesting experimental demonstration of this comes from a study comparing the caring behaviour of university students living in halls or residence (low density), apartments (medium density) or multi-storey towers (high density). The researchers used a subtle technique to measure the students’ neighbourly concern. Stamped addressed envelopes were scattered inside the buildings to create the sense that the “letters” had been lost by fellow residents. The researchers found that, after an interval of four hours, 100% of the letters in the low-density housing had been posted, compared with 87% in the medium density building and 63% in the high-density building.
  • Overcrowding is up to 3-4 times more likely in apartments, flats and units than in separate houses. As the number of individuals sharing a given space increases, people have to work harder to co-ordinate their activities with others. Avoiding frustration, conflict and a sense of not being in control is more difficult under these conditions. Overcrowding is often chronically stressful and a trigger for depression, anger, aggression and social withdrawal.
  • Overcrowding can be particularly damaging for children. Living in high-density apartments restricts children’s physical activity, independent mobility and active play. An Austrian study  found, for example, that an alarming 93% of children living in centrally located high-rise flats had behavioural problems, much more than children living in houses.
  • Even without the added ingredient of overcrowding, urban density is hazardous to mental health. City dwellers have a 21% greater risk for anxiety disorders and 39% greater for mood disorders such as depression. A massive Swedish study of four million people found that the incidence of schizophrenia and depression was, respectively, 73% and 16% higher in the densest urban areas compared with rural regions.

Understanding the link between density and mental health is a work in progress, but a series of German studies puts the spotlight squarely on stress. These studies used healthy volunteers from rural and urban backgrounds (either born or currently living in cities). While their brains were being scanned, the volunteers experienced the stress of being negatively evaluated as they were attempting difficult mental arithmetic tasks.

A consistent and remarkable finding was that “rural brains” and “urban brains” processed the stress via different neural centres and pathways. Unlike the rural brains, the urban brains used a pathway that is dominated by the amygdala, a major source of the dark emotions of anxiety, fear and aversion. In other words, the urban brains performed as if they were primed to respond more negatively to stress.

A possible reason for this is that urban brains have less access to the positive stimulation and buffering effects of nature. As neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, points out, our brains need plenty of positive buffering because they tend to be shaped more readily by bad experiences rather than pleasant ones. They hold onto negative memories in a “velcro-like” way but are “teflon-like” where positive memories are concerned. This means our brains are disposed to deliver a pessimistic rather than an optimistic view of life.

There is strong evidence that contact with nature can ameliorate this tendency. A study of 350,000 people in the Netherlands, for example, found that the prevalence of depression and anxiety was significantly less for people living in areas with 90% of green space compared with those in areas with only 10%.

For me the message is a no-brainer: approach the densification of our cities with caution. Such densification is inevitable, of course, but let’s do it in ways that prevent damage to individual and community well-being.

  • Let’s seek and be guided by objective answers to the questions, when and how does bigger (or denser) in the urban residential landscape come to pose unacceptable risks to health and quality of life?
  • Let’s take with radical seriousness the case for greening our buildings, precincts and neighbourhoods (Let’s make all residential design “biophilic design”)
  • Let’s do everything we can to ensure that every housing development

– has ample attractive green spaces where people can socialise, garden and play.

– is friendly to children, adolescents, the elderly and shut-ins

  • Let’s fight for the preservation, conservation and enhancement of all existing urban green space and bushland

Perhaps this 700 unit, medium density development not far from my home will provide a model to follow by delivering on the promises contained in its billboards.

2014-09-04 15.12.162014-09-04 15.18.30

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