A recent National Geographic article looks at the rejuvenating power of nature on our brain and overall health. What we have known intuitively for centuries is now being backed up by hard scientific evidence. An alternative school in Switzerland, not far from Zurich, is putting this science into practice, while many Swiss unwittingly benefit from it during their time off.
The landscape architects of the 19th and 20th centuries who designed large city parks knew that access to nature was good for the human mind and body. Well before that, the 16th century Swiss physician Paracelsus, believed good health came from finding harmony between man and nature, and that diseases could be caused by psychological conditions.
Humans have evolved to live in nature
The central idea is that we have evolved over millions of years to live in nature. Then in a relatively brief span of time we have been plunged into a world of concrete, screens and artificial sounds. All of this artificiality is draining our brains and damaging our health, or as nature writer Professor David Gessner explains, “some scientists would say technology is slowly ruining our lives. It’s turning us into fast twitch animals. It’s like an alarm clock going off every 3o seconds. Part of us misses our ancestral home which is nature”.
Genetic evidence suggests primates, the mammalian branch containing humans, diverged from other mammals around 85 million years ago. The first continuously inhabited cities probably appeared only several thousands of years ago.
Science is proving the link
Now with brain monitoring technology scientists are able to record differences in how the brain functions when exposed to a natural environment compared to a man-made one. EEG devices that monitor electrical activity in the brain show that exposure to nature reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain used for planning and decision making. Urban environments and modern technology laden lives overwork this part. Nature allows it to rest and recharge, improving brain performance. reducing stress and improving health.
Dr Mathew White and his team at the University of Exeter Medical School took data from 10,000 city dwellers and found a correlation between access to parks and nature and lower levels of mental distress. The difference remained even after adjusting for wealth, employment and education. Other research found that patients in hospital beds with a view of nature recovered faster than those without. Swedish research led by Matilda van den Bosch, that measured heart rates, found exposure to a virtual forest could restore calm.
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In Korea MRI scan data shows how brain blood flow changes when people look at different scenes. Urban scenes trigger blood flows associated with stress while nature scenes set off brain areas associated with altruism and empathy.
Nature could help with depression
Researchers at Stanford University found those who had walked in nature had less activity in parts of the brain associated with depressive thoughts. The same research found looking at nature restored the brain. Going for the same walk in an urban environment didn’t have the same effect. The researchers find that city dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders as compared to people in rural areas. People born and raised in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia. The experiment and challenges of urbanisation are explained in the 2 minute video below.
Swiss forest kindergarten
The forest kindergarten in Langnau am Albis, outside Zurich in Switzerland, is putting all this into action by connecting children with nature five days a week.
Children spend their days outside only going indoors in extreme weather. They are allowed to play freely in water, climb trees and even use knives. Teacher Danièle Bühler says there is research showing that moving around a lot in different ways as a child improves brain development that can improve academic ability in subjects such as mathematics.
The 6 minute video above by Lisa Molomot and producer Rona Richter shows life at the Langnau am Albis forest kindergarten.
One teacher describes a boy getting burnt a bit as a good experience as he now knows that fire is really hot. A parent talks about her two sons. The one who goes to a forest school can play happily with a few sticks. The other who goes to a regular school needs lots of plastic toys to entertain himself.
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Local neuropediatrician Dr. Willy Krauthammer says he sees a lot of children with hyperactivity disorders but has never seen one who attends a wald or forest kindergarten. He also says wald-kindergarten kids have more self-confidence.
The Langnau am Albis forest kindergarten is no offbeat private concept catering to hippie parents either. It is a public school.
The Swiss nature connection
Sport Swiss, a study done in 2014, shows Swiss are the second most active in Europe after Sweden. 44% report they exercise several times a week. The most popular motivation for getting active is to be in contact with nature. 92% said this was very important (61%) or important (31%). Hiking, cycling, swimming and alpine skiing were the four most popular activities.
Long Swiss life expectancy
Swiss life expectancy is currently one of the highest in the world. In 2014 it stood at 81 for men and 85.2 for women. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Switzerland has the second highest male life expectancy and the third highest for women.
The link between low stress and longevity is well established. One US study by Harvard and Stanford researchers shows how workplace related stress can significantly reduce life expectancy. Stress related to having no health insurance, unemployment and no job control appeared to be the biggest life shortners.
Could regularly plugging into nature and long life expectancy be connected?
Let us know what you think in the comment box below.