Most of us take for granted our modern living environment. Most of us live in cities, concrete jungles: where the sounds of cars, sirens, pedestrian chatter, etc., create a great cacophony of modern cosmopolitan life. We take these advancements as obvious necessities for the improvement of our lives. Without cars, phones, electricity, and commerce, we wouldn’t have the luxurious and comfortable lives that many enjoy. Of course, there is truth to this. However, rarely do we take into consideration the effect our environment has on our health. A fascinating body of research is emerging that illustrates the profound impact our external environment has on our mental and physical well-being.
One of the first major papers to observe the health benefits of nature was Ulrich and others from 1984 (Ulrich, 1984). The study followed patients who had undergone cholecystectomy surgery and were hospitalized during their recovery. All patients had rooms with windows. Some patients had views of a brown brick wall, and some patients had views of deciduous trees. Many would expect that the views the patients had out of their window wouldn’t have a great affect on their recovery, however this was surprisingly not the case. Those who had a view of the trees had shorter recovery times, less negative comments about their nurses, took fewer pain medications, and had less post-surgical complications. They were happier, in less pain, and seemingly healed faster!
Today, scientists still do not have a clear understanding of why this occurs. However, since the time of the Ulrich study, and others like it, there has been some effort to unravel this mystery. One popular theory is known as the Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan, 1995). Here, the benefits of nature are thought to derive from its benefits towards our minds and mental fatigue. The theory states that there are two different forms of attention: involuntary (or fascination driven) attention, and direct attention. Fascination requires no effort, and it happens involuntarily. Directed attention is cognitively controlled and does require effort. The act of fascination is said to allow for the directed attention networks of the brain to rest and restore, so they may function more properly when needed. Essentially, the idea is that given our modern stressful life, we experience cognitive fatigue due to all the directed attention we give. Becoming fascinated with a view of nature, provides an effortless attention that generates a restorative effect on our mind. There has been evidence to suggest this is true, as walks in nature have been shown to improve cognitive functioning (Berman et al., 2008). Interestingly, peaceful environments did not provide the same benefits as walks in greenery did (Berman et al., 2008). Suggesting that the cognitive restoration is inherent in the view of nature itself. Additionally, this theory would suggest that natural scenery would also reduce stress, as stress is highly related to the activity of the mind. On this note, research has shown that viewing forest landscapes lowers physiologic indicators of stress such as lower cortisol levels, pulse rate, and blood pressure (“Ming” Kuo, 2013; Park et al., 2010).
Other studies have focused on health outcomes related to the greenery of an individual’s neighborhood. For example, a 2008 study in England observed pre-retirement individuals and distinguished them by their income levels and the exposure to greenery given their living situation (Mitchell & Popham, 2008). The researchers found that risk of general mortality and death from circulatory disease was greater in those who lived in less green areas. This was also not the only study to observe greater heath in vegetative neighborhoods. Another study found that those who lived in neighborhoods with more vegetation had less occurrences of depressive symptoms (Cox et al., 2017). This observation is likely caused by the mental benefits of viewing nature as described above. Additionally, those who live in more barren buildings have higher instances of mental fatigue (Kuo, 2015). Further reinforcing the idea that nature provides significant mental health benefits. However, this does not fully explain how other physical health benefits are observed, such as those observed in the study in England. Another reason a more nature filled environment is beneficial to human health is its effect on lifestyle habits and norms. Multiple studies have shown that people are more likely to participate in physical exercise when living in neighborhoods with more greenery (Cox et al., 2017; Irvine et al., 2013). Additionally, a study in Japan had some college students exercise both in urban environments and in nature, showed that those who exercised in nature had less salivary amylase release and therefore less sympathetic activity (Yamaguchi et al., 2006). Suggesting that not only is exercise more sought after in more nature-heavy environments, but the exercise itself is more heath promoting. Interestingly, social cohesion has also been shown to be improve in neighborhoods with more vegetation (Cox et al., 2017). All these factors are likely contributors to the greater health benefits provided by a more vegetative environment.
The original home of homo-sapiens, us, was in a rich vegetative landscape. It is where we evolved and adapted to survive. For this reason, it is unsurprising that this environment provides stimuli that generate greater balance within our body. Until very recently in human history, most of us still lived with great intimacy to nature. It has only been within recent history where human technological innovation has launched many of us out of our natural environment, and into our new concrete jungles. This change was abrupt and performed with little hesitancy given the great advancement of luxury and quality of life. If research continues to support this proposition that vegetative environments are important for maintaining mental and physical health, then we all have an important question to consider: given our technological advancements that are sure to continue, how do we re-integrate nature back into our living habitats? How can we benefit from our technology, without sacrificing core aspects of our health in the process? How do we find balance in this quickly advancing society? These are questions worth pondering, and it may be our responsibility to do so. For the sake of the future, we cannot forget our past and where we came from.
Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207–1212. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x
Cox, D., Shanahan, D., Hudson, H., Fuller, R., Anderson, K., Hancock, S., & Gaston, K. (2017). Doses of Nearby Nature Simultaneously Associated with Multiple Health Benefits. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(2), 172. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14020172
Irvine, K., Warber, S., Devine-Wright, P., & Gaston, K. (2013). Understanding Urban Green Space as a Health Resource: A Qualitative Comparison of Visit Motivation and Derived Effects among Park Users in Sheffield, UK. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10(1), 417–442. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph10010417
Kaplan, S. (1995). The Restorative Benefits of Nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 169–182.
Kuo, M. (2015). How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1093. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01093
“Ming” Kuo, F. E. (2013). Nature-deficit disorder: evidence, dosage, and treatment. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events, 5(2), 172–186. https://doi.org/10.1080/19407963.2013.793520
Mitchell, R., & Popham, F. (2008). Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study. The Lancet, 372(9650), 1655–1660. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(08)61689-X
Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): Evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), 18–26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9
Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224(4647), 420–421. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.6143402
Yamaguchi, M., Deguchi, M., & Miyazaki, Y. (2006). The effects of exercise in forest and urban environments on sympathetic nervous activity of normal young adults. Journal of International Medical Research, 34(2), 152–159. https://doi.org/10.1177/147323000603400204