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It’s what drives hikers, climbers, cyclists, mountaineers, kayakers and runners. It’s the reason we get up before dawn, it’s the reason we sweat and curse and push ourselves until we can hear our heart pumping. It’s a return to nature.
For almost all of our 200,000 years on the planet, we have walked on dirt and benefitted from our connection with it. There are still cultures and people today who have kept that connection, with the land being synonymous with their identities and how they connect with their cultural heritage, but there are many of us who now rarely experience the power a connection with the wild can have on our mental and physical wellbeing.
The UN estimates that 2007 was the year when more people lived in urban areas than in rural, while it is estimated that by 2050, 7 billion people will live in urban areas.
There are scientific studies that have drawn a link between our urbanisation as societies, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, and significant rises in reported mental illnesses.
We understand that nature improves our senses and immunity, and there is a long history of documenting these effects. But how is a harder question and one that is being increasingly explored in science.
University of Michigan professor Marc Berman explains how natural and urban environments ask different things from our brains.
“Whereas the stimuli we encounter in nature modestly grab attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish…urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.”
In other words, the wild asks less of us. Our minds are free to enter a state commonly referred to as a 'flow state', in which areas of our brain normally required for active decision-making, especially the prefrontal cortex, can sit back and let other parts of the brain have a turn of driving the car. Or perhaps another way of looking at it is that getting out into nature is like buying a Tesla. Just sit back and let the car drive itself. Urban environments on the other hand (especially those that are poorly designed) demand more and different energy from our brains, like an old Toyota Corolla that likes to breakdown at every traffic light unless you rev the accelerator just right.
In 2019, a team of researchers from Griffith University estimated that Australia's current system of national parks was already worth $145 billion to the national economy simply by the mental health benefits they impart on visitors and the consequent savings to the economy. The researchers then extrapolated this globally to $8.7 trillion. This is not to mention the role national parks have on the economy at large, such as for retailers like Kathmandu, who strives to get as many people as possible outdoors, as well as the communities and businesses that interact with national parks.
There is a large body of research, dating back decades, that looks at nature's impact on the brain. In the 1980s, the concept of 'forest bathing' received government support in Japan as a means to improve mental health and is now a nationally recognised cultural practice, while various studies have shown that immersion in nature helps to restore our brain's ability to focus on direct tasks as well as to improve the symptoms associated with depression and other mental health concerns.
This understanding is becoming more sophisticated, with urban planners even developing their own understanding of how we interact with nature. For those who are building our cities, it has become clear that we don't just need a visual reminder of nature but to actually experience nature through all of our senses.
"Increasing our interaction with natural elements through touch – literally getting dirt under our nails – is both psychologically therapeutic and neurologically nourishing," argues Zoe Myers, Lecturer at the Australian Urban Design Research Centre.
In 2015, SBS journalist Sarah Allely was hit by a car while on her bicycle. She received a number of injuries, but the most impactful was her head injury. A knock to the back of her head caused bruising at the front of her brain, which is common for injuries to the back of the skull, causing a number of incapacitating symptoms. Sarah was forced to stay out of work as the simple sounds of her children’s boisterous laughter, music, reading or even sending a text message on her phone caused her to have severe headaches that could last for hours.
In her podcast, Brain on Nature, Sarah details her slow exploration of bushwalking and immersing herself in nature and how it had immediate effects on her head injury symptoms.
In episode six, Sarah interviews Associate Professor Ming Kuo, who runs the Landscape and Human Health Lab at the University of Illinois. Professor Kuo has appeared on other podcasts, such as Hidden Brain, and has detailed how immersion in nature can improve immune cell strength.
“After a three-day weekend in a forest preserve,” Professor Kuo told Hidden Brain’s host Shankar Vedantam, “that boosts natural killer cells on average by 50 percent. And a three-day weekend in a nice urban area, it turns out, doesn't do anything for your natural killer cells.”
Zoe Myers, Lecturer at the Urban Design Research Centre at the University of Western Australia says that there is scientific backing for the idea that tactile interactions with nature are good for our brains.
"Beyond brain imaging of experiences in nature, there is growing and compelling evidence that contact with diverse microbiomes in the soil and air has a profound effect on depression and anxiety. Increasing our interaction with natural elements through touch – literally getting dirt under our nails – is both psychologically therapeutic and neurologically nourishing."
There is no doubt a measurable and palpable surge of interest in the natural world. Just head on social media and you will see adventure and nature celebrated. In 2018, the Pacific Crest Trail Association issued 7,313 permits, up nearly 290% from 2013. Hiking is now the fourth most popular outdoor activity in the U.S, while Tourism Research Australia revealed in 2018 that those aged 20-29 saw an 11% increase in a year for overnight camping/caravan trips.
The surge in scientific research into nature's health benefits, the various podcasts and articles that are regularly written about the topic (such as this one!) and the raw numbers of those hitting the trails and campsites reveal a new relationship with the wild for many who have been brought up in urban environments. Pushed and supported by easier access to nature and phenomena like social media, getting outdoors is fast becoming seen as a balm for the stresses of everyday urban life.
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