The Healing Power of Nature: Science Speaks Up
In a world dominated by screens, a shift towards nature is gaining recognition for its profound impact on mental health and cognition. Psychological research is beginning to explain what we intuitively know and experience: that spending time in nature is very good for us. Its benefits include improved attention, reduced stress, a better mood, enhanced cognitive function, better cardiovascular health and lower risk of disease.
Nature acts as a remedy for our overactive minds, with studies revealing that exposure to green space fosters cognitive development in children and improves attentional functioning in adults. The “biophilia hypothesis” suggests our innate connection with nature, while the “stress reduction” hypothesis states that being in nature triggers a physiological response that lowers stress levels. “Attention restoration theory” supports the idea that nature replenishes cognitive resources, restoring concentration and attention.
In the early 1980s, Japanese researchers embarked on an unconventional exploration inspired by the Forest Agency's recommendation of forest bathing for better health. This practice, known as shinrin-yoku, was initially perceived as whimsical, but it has since revealed measurable therapeutic benefits. Early studies by experts like Yoshifumi Miyazaki demonstrated that spending time in nature induces physiological relaxation, lowering stress hormone cortisol levels.
Research from Dr. Qing Li at the Nippon Medical School later revealed that trees emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides, which, when inhaled during forest walks, bring about biological changes associated with protection against cancer, improved immunity, and lower blood pressure.
Nature also proves to be a vital ally against depression and anxiety. Studies reveal that walking in a natural setting decreases rumination and other nefarious mental activity. These benefits have also been observed in children, with evidence suggesting that nature walks and outdoor play improve attention and concentration, offering a potential natural treatment for ADHD symptoms. In a study of residents of Denmark, researchers found that children who lived in neighborhoods with more green space had a reduced risk of many psychiatric disorders later in life, including depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and substance use disorder.
Contact with nature is even shown to make us happier. Research by Gregory Bratman, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Washington revealed that contact with nature is associated with increases subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions and a sense of meaning and purpose in life, as well as decreases in mental distress.
POV: WIth its myriad mental and physical benefits it is clear that a dose of nature is a critical element to a full and healthy life. Nature is essentially a free medication that has no side effects (ahem: wear sun protection), so find a way every day to integrate nature into your daily life and see how much better you think and feel.