What your brain gets out of building in the forest
by Heather Hansman
It started as a boxy sketch on a Brooklyn bar napkin, more of a question than a cabin. Like, could we actually build something stable? How hard is construction if you’ve never really built anything bigger than a bike jump?
In New York City, Aaron Flack, Geoff King, and Mac Bishop, were getting restless. Bishop, who had a long-term dream of a cabin, sketched up an idea, and even though they had close to zero building experience, they decided to see if they could design and build a cabin from scratch.
“It’s not that big of a deal, people do this all the time, they build homes in remote places, but we were all working on computers and weren’t getting outdoors as much as we wanted,” Flack said.
So last fall they spent a week in the woods on Bishop’s family farm outside of Portland, Oregon. They guesstimated a Home Depot order of lumber and learned 19 new ways to swing a hammer. None of them had really built anything before, but King’s sister’s boyfriend is a carpenter, and he drove out from Raleigh with a truck full of tools to help. Six days later — after only one near-beheading because of a dropped beam — they had a 200-square-foot cabin, solid enough to withstand Northwest windstorms.
They’re not the only ones who have been slipping away from city life to build cabins in the woods with their friends. Not far away, on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge, Foster Huntington — the guy behind the #vanlife movement who could be the poster child for mid-twenties dude cool— strung up a spiderwebbing series of tree houses in a stand of Douglas firs, above a homemade skate bowl. In Sullivan County, northwest of New York City, Zach Klein, one of the founders of Vimeo, bought a patch of land he calls Beaver Brook. There, he and his friends have built a neighborhood of cabins and started a building school. The same crew runs the website cabinporn.com
Going to the woods to live deliberately hasn’t been news since Henry David Thoreau hiked out of Concord, but the most recent fascination with flannel and timber framing might not just be superficial. We have a neurological need for both natural spaces and productive physical work, and the farther we sink into Snapchat, the more we’re missing it. That’s why building a cabin is appealing.
There’s hard science behind that appeal. Working with your hands in nature slows down your heart rate and boosts up your immune system. It can combat depression and stop tumors from spreading. And without necessarily knowing the neuroscience behind it, the boys are going back to the woods and building things.
We are, statistically, farther removed from nature than we’ve ever been. In 2010, the census showed that more than 80 percent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas. A study from the National Academy of Science found that nature-based recreation in the states has been on a steady decline since the mid-‘80s. Over the same period, depression rates, especially among young people, have spiked. Anti-depressant use jumped up 400 percent. “It’s not likely that we’ve had any kind of mutation of our serotonin receptors,” says behavioral neuroscientist Dr. Kelly Lambert. “If we haven’t had any kind of neurochemical change, the one thing that’s different is our lifestyle.”
Lambert, who studies the plasticity of the mammalian brain, started to draw the connections between happiness and working with your hands while she was thinking about someone else’s cabin: Ma Ingalls. She was reading Little House in the Big Woods to her young daughters one night, while she was working on a textbook chapter about depression, and noticed some overlap between the story and the science. “Here she was, building her own house, and killing her own food, and I bought what I made for dinner at Costco,” she says.
Lambert had also been reading up on low rates of depression in rural Chinese and Amish societies. She decided to test the theory that malaise had to do with an increasingly sedentary, plugged-in lifestyle.
“Our idea of a prosperous society is one where we don’t have to do anything, but that’s not really making us happier,” she says.
She took it to the lab, where she ran experiments about effort-based rewards on rats. She looked at their stress and resiliency hormones — the equivalent of cortisol in humans — and found that the rats who had to work for the rewards had higher levels of those hormones. They also came up with more creative solutions to problems, and they were more excited to work. She says it’s hard not to anthropomorphize, but they seemed happier.
Lambert says there are multiple factors involved in that happiness. Physical exertion is one of them, but you can’t just exercise your way to happiness. There has to be a tangible finished product, too. “I’m not saying we need to go back to Little House on the Prairie,” she says. “But our brains see that we’re making the effort and there’s a product at the end.”
It’s not just hammering nails that hits those reward centers, and Lambert isn’t the only one who has been studying it. Nature relatedness, or the degree to which people see themselves as connected to the physical world, is directly correlated to well being. Dr. John Zelenski, who researches happiness, says that relatedness has positive impacts on mental heath, outside of any other factor, like social relationships, that makes people happy.
There are physical benefits, too. In Japan, which has globally high rates of suicide and stress, Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, has gained steam as a part of treatments for a range of things from exhaustion to ADD. A study from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, found that being around trees can increase your number of NK cells, which break down tumors. It also lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and strengthens your immune system.
So why cabins? Zelenski says they combine the mental and physical highs a lot of people feel like they’re missing, but he also thinks it’s tied to a sense of autonomy, and self-reliance.
Aaron Flack says they weren’t consciously thinking about the health benefits of forest bathing when they started brainstorming the cabin, but their disconnect from nature, and lack of hard skills were definitely on their minds. He and his friends work at start-ups. It’s their job to create new things, but they rarely have a finished product that exists outside of a computer. He thinks that’s directly tied to why cabins fascinate him and many of his peers, and why they wanted to build something tangible instead of digital. He thinks that the more time people spend starting at screens, the more they crave wilderness. It’s why almost 100,000 people follow Foster Huntington’s photo stream, and why cabin porn is so appealing. “It’s not a coincidence that it’s getting bigger while Instagram is also growing,” Flack says.
But looking at Internet cabin porn isn’t the same thing, even though cabin-based websites have been exploding in popularity. Zach Klein, who founded cabinporn.com, says he’s tired of talking about why people fetishize pictures of cabins. He says you can’t fully appreciate it unless you do it yourself. You can’t just scroll through Tumblr shots of cabins — you have to do the work to get happy.
Obviously everyone can’t just do that. A secondary living space, even a shared one, implies a level of privilege. You have to have free time and money. A family farm helps. “I definitely think about that,” Flack says. “At what point is it inappropriate or insensitive to romanticize something that’s unrealistic for a lot of people.”
But if you do have the land, the lumber, and the labor force of friends to build a cabin, the science says do it. You’ll be happier and healthier. Even starting from scratch, without any construction skills, is good, because it challenges your brain. If you can’t go all the way to cabin construction, Lambert says, you can get the same neurotransmitters firing through similar physical outdoor activities, like gardening. “It’s kind of baby steps back to feeling a mastery over the world,” she says. “It might even be a false illusion, but we need to think that we have some sense of control.”