Now that the holidays are over, that the cacophony of consumerism has been muted, that our bodies are feeling the excess of celebrating and that the believers in the end of the world have had to deal with a doomsday-no-show, in is time to look ahead and hope for wishful thoughts.
Last December, Outside magazine published an amazing article written by Florence Williams titled “Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning”. The text was about how now science is slowly understanding and capable of explaining the positive neurological effects spending time in nature does to your brain and body. Armed with a battery of machines and sensors, scientists are able to identify the causes and consequences of lets say a walk in the forest. As I rejoice myself with the obvious conclusion, I worry of what is to come next. Williams is also aware of the danger, pointing that our “modern world” will try to put nature in a can, “feel nature without even trying”.
“Nature hates calculators.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness – perhaps ignorance, credulity – helps your enjoyment of these things…” Walt Whitman
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” John Burroughs
Time in nature is more than chemical reactions. It is not just about our natural immune cells increasing every time we take a walk in the forest. Even if one day we are able to create a pill that will replicate the physical sensations of spending time on a beach, it will never do justice and bring the same benefits as the real experience. Nature is about breaking away from the chaos and anxiety we find ourselves so easily trapped in. It is a conscious effort of taking the time to relax. It is about making a choice of values and priorities. In this era of smart phones, computers, tablets, constant connection to the web and relentless solicitation to consume, these decisions to “disconnect” from this overbearing artificial stimuli does more than engage the neurones and immune systems, it is also one of the most rewarding sources of creativity.
The results, which appear this month in PLoS One, were striking. Students who took the test after a four-day immersion in the backcountry scored 50 percent higher than their coursemates. “The current research indicates that there is a real, measurable cognitive advantage to be realised if we spend time truly immersed in a natural setting,” the authors write.
The study’s sample size was small and would best be repeated across several hundred subjects, thoroughly randomised. More importantly, the design doesn’t allow Strayer and his colleagues to pinpoint what’s causing the burst in creativity: is it the interaction with nature, the disconnection from technology, or both? And is physical exercise somehow involved? (Or could it be a flash of green?)
… Just how permanent are the neural ravages of Twitter, Gchat, and Gawker? Is a week in the Canyonlands every summer enough to restore our atrophied attention spans—or are we, the meme generation, totally hosed when it comes to consuming art more complex than a GIF or longer than 140 characters?
I have written before about the lack of imagination in today’s children. The topic is nothing new. A quick search on the web reveals many studies and articles, whether in the Washington Post (Is Technology Sapping Children’s Creativity?) or Psychology Today (Children’s Freedom Has Declined So Has Their Creativity). Richard Louv is obviously well known with his “Last Child in the Woods” book, which has become close to a cult classic.
So my wish for 2013 is that we forget a little about trying to understand too much what happens when we go to nature and that we simply go because it feels good, because it does us good. I wish that we would stop this obsession to quantify everything and start just believing in common sense. I wish that each one of us makes a conscious decision to disconnect at least one day of the week or one day of the weekend, and go out – outside the city, go smell the fresh air, go Shinrin Yoku, go swim, go hike, go see the mountains, the beach, the forest, anything really, as long as you away from any screen.