Mind Matters — Humans Need Nature

Go take a hike! We talk about “human nature” a lot, but it turns out humans themselves need nature.

Researchers are finding that, all across the life span, being outside in natural settings, walking, playing, just sitting, helps both brain and body functions.

The response by some to these findings may be “Well, duh!” it may be common sense and intuitive to know that humans need nature, the outdoors, greenspace, trees, parks, and so on. However, we may need the research to recognize that the need for nature goes deeper than we realize.

There is a burgeoning scientific field called ecotherapy that makes the connection between time spent in natural settings and the reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression.

A study done in 2015 compared the brain activity of healthy people who had walked for ninety minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. Both walks produced similar physiological results. However, the brain activities of the two groups showed a marked difference: those people who did the walks in nature manifested lower activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that can go into overdrive when a person is undergoing high levels of stress, producing a feedback loop of negative thoughts.

Even when we can’t take a walk in nature to quell the ruminating mind, we can listen to recordings of nature sounds, or look at pictures of natural settings. Trees and plantings in our environment make a difference too. What we see from our window at home or at work is important. Persons in a skilled nursing facility may only have access to the nature they view out their windows. We should make it count.

On the other hand, an urban child needs a place to run and play. In fact, one study shows that twenty minutes in a park setting helps elevate attention span. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that both children and teens engage in sixty minutes of physical activity daily. Yet there appears to be a decline in outdoor play. City and municipal planners, hopefully, are taking note of the research: Humans need nature! Duh!

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