Finding the payoff from a walk in the woods

We all know that people today are busy, busy. So there’s always a quick answer available when someone puts a question like, “Why don’t we do more of what makes our brains happy?” But hold it a minute. That’s a very new question. How are we supposed to know what makes our brains happy, anyway?

Most of us probably have no idea. But we’re in an age when answers have started to emerge and, busy or not, many of us could find it a worthwhile investment of our time to sit down with The Nature Fix, a new book by Florence Williams, who happens to have been the person who put the question.

In her book, the Washington-based journalist – and author of a New York Times Notable Book of 2012 – checks out the state of knowledge in a field that has been long-neglected, but is potentially today highly contemporary in its subject area and goals. Her subject is nature, and how it is interacting with our brains as our society becomes ever more committed to an urban lifestyle.

“We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel,” she observes. “Nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other.

“I realized that if I was going to explore what nature offers our brains, I also had to acknowledge what its absence means. What was it about nature that people seem to need?”

In a recent two-year period she would criss-cross much of the planet more than once, talking to researchers, scientists and countless volunteers – with whom she would often participate in blood-pressure, heart-beat, pre-frontal-cortex surveys and more, to measure the green, natural world’s effect on people in matters like mood, health and cognitive ability. She would also interview some of the key theoreticians and investigators of modern-day, nature-brain bonding

In Japan, her first stop, Florence found the population had a hybrid approach to nature that stretched back through time, enjoying it for its recreational offerings and embracing it as a component of their everyday lives. Japanese researchers, in turn, gave her an early insight into the scope of investigations underway there into nature’s potential offerings to human-kind. “They wanted to measure nature’s effects,” she reports, document it, chart it and deliver the evidence to policy makers and the medical community.

But there is much to measure, and even more to explain, in the nature-brain communication that the earnest writer was learning about. Some facts seem to be widely accepted in the specialized community of workers she met – such as the fact that immersion in the natural world clearly affected an individual’s mood, blood pressure, heart activity, cognitive abilities. More, the benefits were seen to endure for varying, often considerable periods after an encounter ended. Streams of volunteers were coming forward to be tested regarding those benefits.

The prominent, retired neuroscientist. Harvard’s Edward Wilson, would later declare the human life principles she exposed are “now supported by evidence in biology, psychology and medicine.”

What the Japanese didn’t really know, Florence would add, was why nature seemed to be helpful in relieving so many things that ail us.

It was in Japan that the writer has her first contact with forest bathing (shinrin yoku), a government-backed promotion of immersion in the wonders of a treed landscape. The practice is new, springing from Japan’s wellness science, and calls on people to employ such immersions to let nature into their bodies through all five senses.

Our author was attached to a group on a hike through Chicchibu TamaKai National Park; there, in the taste portion of this endeavour, they were served mountain grown wasabi root and bark-flavoured tea. At the end of the hike, all five senses having had their workout, the mellow-feeling group would undergo a second series of tests to measure their altered physical condition.

Japan’s Forestry Agency had funded $4 million in forest bathing research in its 48 nationally owned parks since 2003, and planned to double the number in the following 10 years.

In Korea, later, we encounter Korean Forest Agency healing instructor Park Hyun-Soo, in one of that country’s official healing forests. Diagnosed at age 34 with leukemia, Park had sought recovery in the forests; returning to good health, he decided to orient his work to cypress trees.

Today, Park heads the forest agency’s adventurous project to medicalize nature. It has 2,000 to 3,000 patients coming monthly for some kind of treatment, be it cancer, allergies or prenatal care. Jangseong Healing Forest, with its 2.5 million trees, is composed mainly of hinoki cypress, which put out a subtle mist with antibacterial properties. Exposure to these aerosols, says Park, reduces stress by 53 per cent, and lowers blood pressure by five to seven per cent. The soil below promotes other healing, being both anti-viral and a cancer fighter.

Another 34 official forests were scheduled to appear above South Korean turf in the two years following our author’s visit.

And now, one final introduction: to David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah. Recognized as an expert on autos, he realized he gets his best ideas in the wilderness. He decided to shift his research into nature’s methods and find out why.

When Florence met him, he had brought six influential neuroscientists to the scruffy Utah town of Moab. With Florence on hand to listen and learn, the scientists would work at framing questions that would help researchers “determine the effect of something as beautiful and complex as nature on something as beautiful and complex as the human brain.”

We aren’t privy to the group’s thoughts. But Davie Strayer has told us that his goal is to find within 10 years some answers to the key nature-brain bonding questions being asked today.

As for Florence, who had produced multi questions of her own during her two year odyssey, she had her own goals: “I was in search of the best science that is turning up – in the hope,” she says, “that it can be drawn on to achieve greater physical, mental and social well-being for human kind.”

We can, at least, share her accompanying hope: that our ever-more-urbanized, technology-driven world will team up with nature to reap the benefits.

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