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How does nature chill us the hell out?

Author: The Simple Bit

Category: Science

There is a whole area of study called environmental psychology that is all about how our surroundings affect us. Like, for instance, a forest. So why is nature so important? We asked Dr. Justin Lawson, a lecturer in health, nature, and sustainability.

The simple bits:

  • Nature can be a good and bad thing – sometimes too much nature freaks us out
  • 90% of Australians live in urban environments
  • Exposure to nature can have physiological and psychological effects
  • Forests can particularly affect our focus 

One of the clear findings of the research that led to the Clear Mind Experiment was that nature has the capacity to relax us and help us achieve calm focus. Being in nature can do that, but even looking at nature can be enough. Which is why we put a goat in a forest and a lava lamp on a beach (with a really long extension cord). 

So why is nature so important? We asked Dr. Justin Lawson, a lecturer in health, nature, and sustainability. Justin’s research and even his experience in the field (like literally in a field) can help provide some support for our contact with nature and the benefits it has on our wellbeing.

Firstly, is nature always a good thing?

For some of us, being in nature can be actually quite a fearful kind of experience, whether it be down the ocean that the fear of sharks and stingrays or big waves, or if you’re in the forests you might be fearful of snakes and spiders or falling limbs. We’ll call that biophobia, it’s actually quite a real psychological fear for a lot of people.

Globally, 55% of the population live in urban environments. Here in Australia, that’s tracking roughly about 90%. So we’re now living in places where there’s very little of that element of nature in our lives. So, that can affect us psychologically through having a sense of not really being comfortable in natural environments. Okay. So it’s the negative side of things.

Give us the good news, Doc! 

“So physiologically, exposure to natural environments can help reduce our heart rate, our blood pressure, salivary and blood cortisol levels, which are indicators of stress. This means that we would see a reduction in dopamine and adrenaline, but also enhancement in natural killer cells. That’s as a result of what’s actually in the forest, in the wood itself, the wood essential oils, they have antibacterial and antiviral properties. So physiologically, it’s actually quite a good thing to be in the forest for those boosts to our immune system. Psychologically we find that reports on anxiety, depression, fear, and anger can also be reduced.”

Nice! And what about the psychological effects?

“Psychologically it’s another thing again. When we have this contact with nature it can also give us a sense of calm, obviously we’re being less stressed, there’s less depression, less anxiety, less feelings of anger. So there have been measurements on all that, recordings of all that. And there can be feelings of vigour as well, feeling quite alive in those environments.”

Ok so what’s the theory behind this? 

“There’s actually a whole field of inquiry – environmental psychology – that explore a number of theories: Stress Reduction Theory, Attention Restoration Theory, among others. And Attention Restoration Theory is quite fascinating or intriguing because there are two levels of attention – hard and soft. When those who have a hard level of attention are focused on things, they can’t really think about anything else. Right? So you’re watching sports or playing video games, it’s very focused.

What’s really intriguing is the soft fascination in Attention Restoration and that happens when you are in a forest. We have a ‘timeout’ and there’s a moment to just pause and reflect on what is actually happening in that environment. Little things start to take your attention, like the light shining through the trees. 

The Japanese have a word for that, komorebi, the light dappling through the leaves. Or it’s the dance of a butterfly through the forest or the sound of the wind through the leaves. So those moments actually are quite beneficial in dealing with our mental fatigue and stress.”

Anyone for komorebi? Pic by David Wirzba.

What are the ways we can have profound experiences in nature?

“Having really profound experiences in nature really depends on the types of senses that we would use to experience nature in those natural settings.

Hearing and the sounds of nature can elicit some interesting responses right across the board. The sound of rain can be quite calming. Maybe some bird calls, but then some animal calls could also be quite annoying. So that’s another thing to balance. 

The sense of smell. The types of natural environments with regards to, again, the forest, like the eucalyptus, or down to the sea, the salty air. As we know, there’s this smell that happens when the rain has just hit on a dry earth and there’s that interesting kind of smell of all the oil coming out of the ground, petrichor is the name for that.

Then just what you see, the glory of nature, whether it is on top of a mountain, a dawn with the clouds, or maybe a sunset or a sunrise through the waves crashing. There’s some fantastic photographs of people who’ve done that, the surfers. That is just phenomenal. So it’s very different for all different people.”

How do we de-clutter our minds being in nature?

“There are four very simple things as a result of the attention restoration theory. The first one being that we make the time to get out of the daily hassles, getting away. The second one is to the extent of connectedness to those natural environments. The third one, having a sense of fascination. And then lastly, being compatible, having the type of environment, the setting that we want to get to. Okay. So those four can be utilised and it’s the third one really that it’s being the most important, that sense of fascination, the soft fascination, allowing our minds to just settle and be attracted, intrigued by certain elements within nature. Then that helps with just the other things [that are] moving away from our attention.”

What are you hoping to find from the Clear Mind Experiment? And will a goat on a beach or a kitten in a forest work?

“It would come down to just how it’s probably filmed. Putting on an environmental science hat, sometimes kittens aren’t really the best to be in a natural environment. So there’s that to consider, but they’re cute and furry. And baby goats, maybe it’s the startling thing to see that, that could elicit some kind of positive reaction again, say with having a lava lamp in the forest. That’s quite intriguing, I think. And it would depend on I’d say the timing of when you would film that as to whether you can generate a certain sense of mystique or a magical quality to us, at dusk, light going down or a bit of mist and there’s this lava lamp appearing. Then that could be quite intriguing.”