I recently read an article by Gretchen Reynolds on one of the New York Times’ blogs entitled “How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain.” I’d encourage you to pause here and go read it. I’ll wait.
It’s good, huh? But while I can’t really say I’ve ever wondered how, specifically, walking in nature changes the brain (and really can’t say that I totally understand it even after reading the article), I’ve always known that walking in nature changes my brain. And I’m not alone.
John Muir, one of nature’s greatest champions, said this way back in 1901:
“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.” (John Muir, Our National Parks)
Later in his life, Muir said this:
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.” (quoted in Linnie Marsh Wolf, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, 1938)
I think Muir and I would’ve been friends.
So let’s talk about the article a bit, because I found a few things pretty interesting. Gregory Bratman, the researcher in the NY Times post, decided to focus his research on the effect of nature on a person’s tendency to “brood.” Brooding, also referred to in the article as “morbid rumination,” is “a mental state familiar to most of us, in which we can’t seem to stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives.” Or with the rest of the world.
Hi. I’m Ron. And I’m a brooder.
The fact is that nature has always had a profound recalibrating effect on me. And while I think everyone can benefit from time spent in nature, I’m convinced that I need it more than most people. Then again, maybe it’s just that I’m more aware of my need of it than most people.
The article ends with an assertion that many questions remain, “including how much time in nature is sufficient or ideal for our mental health, as well as what aspects of the natural world are most soothing. Is it the greenery, quiet, sunniness, loamy smells, all of those, or something else that lifts our moods? Do we need to be walking or otherwise physically active outside to gain the fullest psychological benefits? Should we be alone or could companionship amplify mood enhancements?”
I have some thoughts about most of those questions, at least based on my own experience. And although decidedly unscientific (and because I’m often wrong, but never in doubt), I’ll assert them as fact. 😉
So let’s take them one by one, shall we?
How much time in nature is sufficient or ideal for our mental health? I think there are two elements here. The first is frequency: How often do you need to spend time in nature? And the second is duration: How much time do you need when you get there. I’m tempted to just say “As much as you can possibly steal from other activities and obligations.” More (and more often) is always better, at least for me. John Muir thought that too:
“Wander here a whole summer, if you can. Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted. If you are business-tangled, and so burdened by duty that only weeks can be got out of the heavy-laden year … give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it . . . .” (John Muir, Our National Parks)
I like the way Muir thinks! I recognize, though, that his advice will be regarded, for many, as practically impossible, given the constraints of modern society (or rather, the constraints we’ve placed upon ourselves in modern society, but that’s another post). I think it’s telling, though, that in the study they imposed a 90 minute walk. I think 90 minutes is great, especially if I could have that every day. If I can’t have it every day, I want more when I can have it. But trading frequency for duration has a point of diminishing returns, I think. If I could have an hour a day with 2-4 hours on the weekend, I’d feel pretty good. If I could bump that up to 90 minutes a day, I’d feel like I was in heaven. But I don’t think 15 minutes is nearly enough.
What aspects of the natural world are most soothing? Is it the greenery, quiet, sunniness, loamy smells, all of those, or something else that lifts our moods? For me, it’s the quiet, mostly, and the peace. And as long as we’re parsing this all out, quiet means the absence of human sounds and peace means the almost certainty that I will not encounter anyone else whilst I’m there. Nature is my sanctuary, and for me to derive the most benefit from it, I usually need to be alone. Which is not to say that I don’t relish a good walk in the woods with my son or brother (or both). But I can count on one hand the specific people who I could be with in nature and not feel like it was disturbing the mood. So generally, I want to be alone. Beyond that, the sights and sounds definitely play a part.
Do we need to be walking or otherwise physically active outside to gain the fullest psychological benefits? I’m not sure that matters much to me. Usually I do some of both. I’ll walk quite a bit because I enjoy walking and because I like seeing new things. But if I come to someplace really special, or if I get tired, I’ll stop and sit and enjoy the view. I will say that nature is much different when you’re quiet and still and allow yourself to fade into the background and become part of it, and you shouldn’t rob yourself of that experience by constantly being on the move. Nature is something you experience, not something you get through.
Should we be alone or could companionship amplify mood enhancements? Again, I generally prefer to be alone. When I’m not alone, there are only a small handful of people I’m willing to share my time in nature with. Generally, that’s my son and/or my brother. I hesitate to say this because it has the potential to sound like I don’t like people, which would not be true. But people complicate things. And frankly, I’m around people a lot. That said, I’m an introvert. I love people, but people drain me. A friend of my wife’s (an extrovert) was talking one time about her ideal day and she talked about how wonderful it would be to have lunch with 200 of her closest friends. Just thinking about that made me tired. In nature, I’m seeking something I can’t get when I’m around people. So for me, the two are a little bit mutually exclusive.
So there’s my take on the questions raised by the article.
Regardless of whether my answers to those questions are right or wrong, it’s so true that nature has a recalibrating effect on us. For a people who are inundated – by circumstance and by choice – with noise and bustle and chaos every waking minute of a day filled with too many waking minutes, nature is a gift of God, offering a respite and reprieve from the madness and a chance to get to know yourself again. And more importantly, a chance to get to know the God who created it and you. Nature is his gift to us, I’m convinced. Take advantage of it. Enjoy it.