This Is Your Brain on Nature
When we get closer to nature—be it untouched wilderness or a backyard tree—we do our overstressed brains a favor.
When you head out to the wilderness, David Strayer is the kind of man you want behind the wheel. He never texts or talks on the phone while driving. He doesn’t even approve of eating in the car. A cognitive psychologist who specializes in attention, Strayer knows our brains are prone to mistakes, especially when we’re multitasking and dodging distractions. Among other things, his research has shown that using a cell phone impairs most drivers as much as drinking alcohol does.
Strayer is in a unique position to understand what modern life does to us. An avid backpacker, he thinks he knows the antidote: Nature.
On the third day of a camping trip he experiences what he calls the “three-day effect. Our brains, he says, aren’t tireless three-pound machines; they’re easily fatigued. When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too.
Strayer has demonstrated as much with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. The three-day effect, he says, is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough. On this trip he’s hoping to catch it in action, by hooking his students—and me—to a portable EEG, a device that records brain waves.
“On the third day my senses recalibrate—I smell things and hear things I didn’t before,” Strayer says. The early evening sun has saturated the red canyon walls; the group is mellow and hungry in that satisfying, campout way. Strayer, in a rumpled T-shirt and with a slight sunburn, is definitely looking relaxed. “I’m more in tune with nature,” he goes on. “If you can have the experience of being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.”
In 1865 the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted looked out over the Yosemite Valley and saw a place worth saving. He urged the California legislature to protect it from rampant development. Olmsted had already designed Central Park in New York City; he was convinced that beautiful green spaces should exist for all people to enjoy. “It is a scientific fact,” he wrote, “that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character … is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect.”
Olmsted was exaggerating; his claim was based less on science than on intuition. But it was an intuition with a long history. It went back at least to Cyrus the Great, who some 2,500 years ago built gardens for relaxation in the busy capital of Persia. Paracelsus, the 16th-century German-Swiss physician, gave voice to that same intuition when he wrote, “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.” In 1798, sitting on the banks of the River Wye, William Wordsworth marveled at how “an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony” offered relief from “the fever of the world.” American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir inherited that outlook. Along with Olmsted, they built the spiritual and emotional case for creating the world’s first national parks by claiming that nature had healing powers.
By Florence Williams National Geographic Society