Since Victorian times, Epping Forest, an ancient English woodland straddling the border between North London and the County of Essex has been a popular vacation spot for working-class Londoners. I grew up near the forest, and already at the age of nine, when not at school, I was spending my days amongst the trees. It was a soft welcoming place, a refuge from a stressful childhood. I would go fishing in the forest ponds, spending whole days at the water’s edge. As grew older I decided that that fishing was cruel, and instead, I would search for animal tracks, creating plaster casts of the animal footprints. I never actually met the badgers, foxes, deer and other creatures of the forest whose footprints I was preserving, but I felt they were my friends.
It will come as no surprise to most of us that a walk in the woods can be a relaxing experience. But there is now research that suggests that the changes in our brains resulting from a walk in the forest can reduce depression; spending time in nature can be a form of therapy. A Study by Gregory N. Bratman, J. Paul Hamilton, Kevin S. Hahn et al (Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation) shows that a 90-min walk in a natural setting decreases both self-reported rumination (focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress) and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (associated with mood disorders). They conclude that “nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”
Nature as a Medical Procedure
We really don’t need scientific research to tell us that a walk in the forest is a pleasurable experience. After all, we instinctively search out natural beauty spots when planning our vacations. But providing a scientific justification enables health professionals to take this on board. If you live in the Shetland Isles of Scotland, you can now be prescribed nature on the NHS (National Health Service)
In separate research, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, environmental psychologists at the University of Michigan, suggested that nature could be a cure for Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF)
Wikipedia describes DAF as follows:
DAF is a neuro-psychological phenomenon that results from overuse of the brain’s inhibitory attention mechanisms, which handle incoming distractions while maintaining focus on a specific task. Signs of Directed Attention Fatigue include temporarily feeling unusually distractible, impatient, forgetful, or irritable when there is no associated illness. In more severe forms, it can lead to bad judgment, apathy, or accidents, and can contribute to increased stress levels.
The Kaplans devised the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which states that a person is better able to maintain focused directed attention after spending time in the natural environment. ART asserts that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature.
Introducing Nature into Your Daily Routine
Like many of us working in a pressured, multitasking environment, I can recognize the symptoms of DAF on myself. With the vast input of data that we deal with on a daily basis, it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore distractions when attempting to focus on a task. But unless we live in a rural environment, surrounded by green pastures and nature, or have access to a nearby park, theories of nature therapy are not very helpful. However, the Kaplans suggest that just looking at scenes of nature has a beneficial effect, so I have I decided to put the theory to the test.
…the results are spectacular, my stress levels have plummetted and my powers of concentration have shot up
I discovered many nature clips on Youtube, showing scenes of a forest or running water. Once an hour, and when switching from one task to another, I put on my headphones, watch a clip and the results are spectacular; my stress levels have plummetted and my powers of concentration have shot up.
I have also found that, while working, if I put on headphones with the sound of water or birdsong, I can concentrate better despite the distractions of my open plan office.
My experience thus confirms the ART assertion that scenes of nature have a positive effect, even when the real nature is not available in our urban environment.
In Victorian times, the factory owners would arrange days-out in the forest for their workers. I wish modern day Human Resource departments would learn something from their Victorian predecessors. Most of what passes these days for team building activities encourage competitiveness and increase stress. A gentle day in nature would be much more constructive to the employee's well-being.
In Conclusion — Let the Forest Restore Your Equilibrium
We should all spend more time in nature. But if you can’t get away right now, open YouTube, put on those headphones and let the sights and sounds of the forest restore your equilibrium.