Over 200 years ago, William Wordsworth alluded to the idea that nature has the power to restore our weary hearts and minds. In his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798”, he eloquently describes how the beauty of nature can provides us with tranquil restoration.
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration.
These sublime words of Wordsworth also point out that city living, whether in the 18th or 21st centuries, often causes us to feel depleted, disconnected, and isolated, with a vague free-floating anxiety, or the painful thought that nothing makes sense including our own stressful lives. As a result of these thoughts and feelings, we work at low efficiency with little creativity and no sense of fulfilment. We are often irritable, barely able to tolerate the many minor difficulties of living in a complex society.
The good news is that recent psychological research clearly supports the very solution that Wordsworth proposed so eloquently 212 years ago, specifically the solution of taking time to experience natural beauty in order to bring about “tranquil restoration” of our minds and souls.
There is considerable scientific evidence that taking time to be in a beautiful outdoor nature setting such as a park can increase the efficiency of the brain and improve our general psychological mood. In January of this year, two researchers, Kaplan and Berman, (citation at end of this post) in the respected journal “Perspectives on Psychological Science” reviewed the considerable scientific evidence that being in nature can improve our mental and physical health. They listed 13 studies showing positive mental or physical consequences of increased exposure to nature. Only a couple of them will be described below.
Cimprich in 1993 carried out a study on women diagnosed with breast cancer and tracked various aspects of their mental and physical health throughout treatment and a period of convalescence. Patients were randomly assigned to either an intervention or a non-intervention group.
The intervention was to engage in “walking in nature and gardening” for at least 20 min three times per week for 12 weeks. The results were surprising in view of such an non-intrusive intervention i.e. being close to nature 3 times a week. The nature group showed significant gains in mental ability, specifically in ability to pay attention and in memory, compared to the group not systematically exposed to nature. There were more general results also; the nature-exposed group returned to work sooner, were more likely to return to full-time work, and were more inclined to start new projects e.g. lose weight.
The second piece of research supporting the restorative effects of being close to nature is one reported in 2000 by Kuo and his associates on residents of a large urban public housing project in Chicago. Such settings are known to be challenging environments in terms of personal safety. They found that residents who had vegetation, especially trees, close to their apartments, compared to residents without such easy access to nature, were more likely to utilize peaceful, non-aggressive, non-violent means of solving problems encountered in living in such large low cost housing projects.
These are just two bit of scientific evidence out of at least 13 studies which have been done showing the restorative effects of experiencing nature on a regular basis. Kaplan and Berman conclude that there is convincing evidence for the restorative effect of nature on human functioning. It is important to note that these studies show that exposure to nature can have a restorative effect but this does not mean that it is the complete cure for every problem faced by mankind. Nevertheless it is one way, among many, to reduce stress and give us more serenity and tranquillity. And it is a simple, enjoyable and very cost effective way of doing so. Or as my old Scottish auntie would say, it is “good for what ails you”.
Kaplan and Berman in the paper cited above also propose and explanation for the restorative power of nature. They utilize Attention Restoration Theory which in its simplest form suggests that there are two types of attention; involuntary which is automatic and relatively undemanding of brain energy and voluntary which requires focused attention and is much more demanding of brain energy.
Attention Restoration Theory proposes that modern civilization, especially urban living and working, tends to overtax voluntary attention leaving the brain depleted. In contrast exposure to natural environments such as parks, botanical gardens, seashores etc. reduces the demands on voluntary attention and hence allows time for the underlying brain circuits to be replenished by the brain’s biochemical self repair and self restoration mechanisms.
There are other possible explanations for how exposure to nature can restore normal mental functioning. Probably the simplest explanation is that the quietness and natural visual beauty away from the competition and challenges of everyday urban life allows us to relax our bodies and our minds.
This relaxed state of our minds allows our brains to replenish its energy reserves so that we have lots later on when we return to the normal hustle and bustle of life and we can operate our minds at the usual rapid and likely exhausting pace. Or it may be due to the brain having a limited amount of energy and that in nature we revert back to the default mode of mental functioning which being mainly automatic is very energy efficient which permits restorative processes to occur.
But the romantic, mystical part of me feels that the “tranquil restoration” occurs because in nature, we feel we are part of something much greater than the self which induces in us awe and wonder at nature’s power and greatness.
When most of us think of nature we think of nature reserves, national parks, countrysides, seashores, or city parks. But what constitutes nature and the ways in which we feel connected to nature are quite varied.
Some people including myself love watching lightning and thunder storms or even hurricanes whipping winds and rain. I was surprised to find the dessert areas outside of Phoenix Arizona absolutely stunning in their beauty. In contrast many of us spend vacations at the seaside where we may be hypnotized by the rhythmic sound of the surf. Perhaps a bit less commonly, people can experience a connection with nature by being awed by observing the wonders of science.
For example I remember clearly, although it is over fifty years ago, one winter night when I first observed through my telescope the planet Jupiter and its four moons. I was awe struck, so much so, that I kept my eye against the cold eyepiece far too long and ended up with a black eye.
This articles highligts how nature's beauty can feed our soul and heal our mind. In another article, I will elaborate more on what you can do to get connected with nature. If you have a place of beauty that makes you feel at ease and in tune with nature, feel free to share them in the comments section so others may benefit from it.
I love this article. It reminded me of times when i was out in the nature and i always felt so much better after. How could I ever forget the times when i sat down on the grass in my garden, picking weeds one by one and soaking in the tranquil surrounding. 3 times a week of nature is what I'm going to do from now on.
May 15, 2012 07:32:19
It is so good to hear from you Eve and that the article reminded you of how your own experience has been that being in nature is calming. There is a saying "We need not so much to be informed at to be reminded."
Thanks and keep up the 3 times a week of oneness with nature.
May 19, 2012 01:56:33