A dose of nature can cure many ailments. From antidepressant microbes in soil, to absorbing the Earth’s free-flowing electrons through the soles of one’s feet (Earthing), Eco Therapy has a long list of benefits, both physical and psychological. It calms the mind, helps us focus, lowers stress levels and inspires a sense of awe and wonder. Forests and parks can therefore be looked at as therapeutic landscapes.
Trees are one of the World’s oldest living life forms, and they ease our spirits. As we know, forests pump out oxygen for us to breathe, and almost half of all known species live in forests. It is estimated that 300 million people live in forests, which includes approximately 60 million indigenous people, for whom survival depends mostly on native woods.
In the book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, How They Communicate’, German forester Peter Wohlleben describes the astonishing and sophisticated language of trees. Science backs up his observations that trees in forests are social organisms. They work together for mutual benefit, because a tree on its own is not a forest. They communicate via interconnected root systems and send electrical signals across a fungal network, which people have dubbed the “wood wide web”. They warn each other of threats, share nutrients, nurse sick neighbours, and are able to count, learn and remember. They even keep ancient stumps of felled trees alive by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.
Perhaps these discoveries help us understand, to some degree, why we are so drawn to and soothed by being in their company. People have long felt the benefits of the presence of trees. Trees are often represented in religions, myths and legends from various cultures.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life. ~ Hermann Hesse
In 1982, Forest Bathing became part of a national public health program in Japan, and still continues to be a large part of preventative healing in Japanese medicine. Shinrin’yoku or Forest Bathing, is a short, leisurely visit to the forest, and has been scientifically proven to be highly beneficial for your health. You don’t have to do anything other than simply be with the trees. It’s meant to be effortless; there is no aim to achieve or do anything. The body of scientific work established by researchers in this field is gaining acknowledgement World wide.
You may notice that when you’re in a forest, the air seems to have a different quality to it. This is due to plants and trees giving off something called Phytoncide, an essential oil that protects them from insects and disease. The forest air is rich with these chemicals. Inhaling Phytoncide enhances human natural killer (NK) cell activity. This in turn improves our immune system function; as the NK cells kill tumour and virus-infected cells in our bodies. It also decreases stress hormones, and the beneficial effects of a couple of days of forest bathing can last up to a month.
Your Brain on Nature
As more and more people live in urbanised areas, time spent in nature declines. A study has shown that even viewing a representation of nature, such as a painting or photograph, helps hospital patients recover faster than those staring at a hospital wall. It has also been found that children with ADHD greatly benefit from being in natural surrounds by increasing their ability to focus. Away from the bombardment of stimulus from man made or urban landscapes, nature restores our mental reserves.
Nature’s effect on our brains is fascinating. Your creative brain flourishes when you’re in a natural environment. In his research on the psychological and cognitive effects of the outdoors, Neuroscientist David Strayer has found it develops higher-order thinking (analysing, evaluating, creating); it restores our attention, and increases creativity. Strayer’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that exposure to nature can sharpen our minds. He immersed a group of hikers in nature for four days, “and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increased performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50%”.
Soft Fascination and Creativity
Neuroscientists refer to fascination experienced in nature as ‘soft fascination’. Hard fascination is when your attention is drawn to something that demands full concentration, like a child screaming, entertainment, advertising, traffic and so forth.
Soft fascination, or effortless attention, is quiet and almost involuntary – listening to birdsong or leaves rustling, watching water flow over rocks, or the clouds moving across the sky. As Strayer says, you’re able to watch nature without getting bored, yet it’s not in itself mentally taxing. “It can be mesmerizing… it’s a gentle capturing of attention.” Your mind becomes free to reflect and wander, which is a great way to get your creativity flowing.
Nature also instills in us a sense of awe. Another study has found that our thinking becomes more expansive when we experience a sense of wonder and smallness in the face of something greater than us. This outward or expansive thinking allows us to consider different points of view, and think beyond our immediate reality. This too is a catalyst for creativity. A change in perspective can be transformative.
Connecting with, and cultivating an enjoyment for nature can provide a sense of fulfilment, and enhances our quality of life.
Now and again, it is necessary to seclude yourself among deep mountains and hidden valleys to restore your link to the source of life. Breathe out and let yourself soar to the ends of the universe; breathe in and bring the cosmos back inside… ~ Morehei Ueshiba