Nature and the Brain
– By Michiel Vriens There are several debates that continuously resurface in our society and perhaps the one most relevant to all of us, is our overuse of technology. Obviously technology is very useful for a large array of things, but when it comes down to it we find it hard to disconnect. I’m going to give the word ‘epidemic’ a wide berth, but I think we can all agree that our society is struggling to balance its use of technology with a healthy lifestyle. We keep ourselves glued to our hectic lives through our mobile phones, and other devices; subsequently, technology doesn’t let us take a break. So what should we do? One answer that often comes up is that we need to ‘reconnect with nature’. I’ve heard this so many times, I’ve lost count. What frustrates me about it is that it seems so obvious, yet simultaneously it remains annoyingly out of reach. What does reconnecting with nature even mean? I’m going to try and elaborate on that a bit. Apparently, reconnecting with nature is actually really healthy for you. About a year ago now, an extremely interesting article was published in the National Geographic about precisely this topic: reconnecting with nature to escape the overbearing stress of our modern city life. For those, who live in a city of course. It turns out that being in a city, even one you’re very familiar with, puts your brain and therefore also your body, in a state of perpetual stress. That stress may vary in intensity, but it never quite disappears. This is because there are so many things in a city that your brain identifies as ‘unnatural’, and by that I mean synthetic. This is where it gets intriguing. Your brain identifies the environment of a city as unnatural, because it is different to the environment in which our brains evolved. Our brains therefore, exhibit some kind of evolutionary memory. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, an evolutionary scientist, but the concept of evolutionary memory is awesome. The brain distinguishes between natural environments and synthetic ones, but only in natural environments can the brain relax. Well, relax in a manner of speaking. Fundamentally, the brain switches gear and becomes more passive when in nature. According to the article, the brain, needs to be seen as a muscle in this context. In a city it’s overused and quickly fatigued, hence it needs the exposure to nature to sooth it and calm it down. It was found that those who regularly go for walks in national parks, or just parks for that matter, tend to be far less stressed than those who don’t. In essence, these are the ones, who take a break from our hectic lives. Reconnecting with nature is as simple as that. It’s literally a walk in the park. The analogy that springs to mind is that our brains are high performing athletes, except that their sport’s season never ends. Exposing ourselves more to nature brings an end to that season and even gives our brain a relaxing massage. I know that plenty of us are stressed. So the next time you’re feeling stressed, why not go for a stroll through a park? You’re not just looking at trees then, you’re massaging the brain.