Want to get better? Look at some trees...

Exposure to nature can kick-start dramatic health improvements

A beautiful view could change your perspective

In the woods we return to reason and faith. There, I feel that nothing can befall me in life — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair.

In his essay Nature (1836), Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrates the healing potential of the natural world; its power to refresh and regenerate. This phenomenon continues to be recognised; the vital importance of connecting with nature for our vitality is being explored across many different fields, from poetry and art to medicine, psychotherapy and neuroscience.

While actual, boots-on interaction with nature — (muddy hallway or it didn’t happen!) — is understood to be the most beneficial way to greet it, recent research shows that even looking at greenery from afar has multifarious effects on our cognitive processing that boost our physical and mental wellbeing.

We are healthiest when our awareness of the natural world is built into the way we live our lives — as well as the design of the buildings we live in. Exploring how we can open the doors to nature as widely as possible gives us the best chance of accessing its healing and protective powers.

Connecting with nature helps our bodies and minds reboot

Clinical explorations reveal nature’s many desirable healing properties. These kinds of findings are further illustrated by many different people who have found that exposure to nature can kick-start dramatic health improvements.

The neurologist Oliver Sacks describes “taking [his] patients to gardens whenever possible, [as] in many cases, the healing powers of nature are more powerful than any medication.” He describes a female patient affected by Parkinson’s rediscovering freedom of movement in the garden. Another patient, an urban man severely affected by Tourette’s, finds himself symptom-free on a hike. Life-changing experiences like these affirm nature’s power, but they also beg the question: What invisible processes underlie these dynamic rekindlings of physical and mental health?

“Leaving me my eyes”: the sight of nature can brighten us up

Emerson exhaluts in the importance of visual engagement with the natural world, to the extent of portraying his whole self as a “transparent eye-ball.” In this conceptualisation, his existence hinges on processing the natural world; everything else falls away. As his personal sense of self and associated problems vaporise, he becomes “uplifted into infinite spaces.” In other words, he undergoes a kind of transcendental spring-cleaning process known as “ego-dissolution.”

Returning to the wild can remind us of our place in it. The small potatoes of our personal lives revert to feeling comparatively trivial to the limitless potential of the ground we grow from, and will one day return to.

Although Emerson is tripping on the beauty of his sylvan surroundings nearly 200 years ago, he identifies how intrinsic his sight is to his experience of their psychologically purifying effects, cannily presaging the findings of contemporary clinical investigations. Studies are revealing that, where actual immersion in nature is not an option, even just the sight of plant life can catalyse powerful health improvements.

Investigations focussing on people affected by trauma show that views of natural surroundings can reduce blood pressure, diffuse muscle tension and diminish levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) found in saliva. Reducing our stress levels in these tangibly measurable ways is understood to be key to nature’s transformational potential.

A desk with a view: wellbeing in the workplace

Nature’s contribution to wellbeing in the workplace is also being explored; (the connection between hours spent in artificially lit dungeons and outcomes like breakdowns and burnouts has been definitively established). Research comparing office views — from unpaved paradises to the parking lots all too regularly put up over them — reveals that, however fleeting, sightings of plant-life can transform performance.

A 2015 study finds that even tiny doses of nature — as short as 40-second intervals; dubbed “micro-breaks” — can help a person sustain attention for significantly longer periods than they’d find possible without a peripheral, plant-based pick-me-up. The effects of these glimpses are certainly not sub-perceptual; views with a nature-based element reduce stress and rumination and increase our capacity to pay attention and sense of contentment. (Crack open the blinds, and watch the existentialist memes disappear from screens all round!)

“Soft fascination”: nature restores our attention

When we look at nature, we experience a mindstate called “soft fascination,” according to Attention Restoration Theory (ART), developed by psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan from the University of Michigan.

Entering a state of “soft fascination” allows our minds to reboot. Noticing how the leaves blow in the wind or pink clouds shape shift across the darkening sky absorbs our attention, but in a significantly less intensive way than a diverting, highly stimulating activity (Game of Thrones? Actual jousting?). The more comfortably you become engrossed in the workings of the natural world, the better you set your subconscious up to engage in some hardcore passive reflection; a recipe for leaving the scene feeling restored.

Gazing solutions: bringing the great outdoors in

If you lived in an all-glass micro-home like the Photon-Space by Cantifix, à la Henry David Thoreay’s Walden, you could look up and experience deep woodland immersion at any given moment. While tiny homes, and particularly glass ones, can increase our connection to nature, the rise of the “tiny house movement” — known to include properties as little as 7.4 m2 — is primarily a revolt against expansive consumerism.

When we parr the way we live down to the bare essentials, it reduces our overall environmental impact. Tiny homes also allow a given area to be shared harmoniously between more people. In their 2019 report “Size Doesn’t Matter,” the Adam Smith Institute recommend the UK government green light them, as part of a response to the current housing crisis.

The Royal Society of British Architects (RIBA) declared a climate emergency in June 2019, committing to sustainability and reducing the environmental impact of planned buildings. These intentions coalesce naturally with a desire to increase the plant-life surrounding our buildings, their hospitality to it and ability to showcase it.

A vision for a future green city

What can we do from the concrete jungle?

It’s not feasible for most of us to up sticks and build a literal “transparent eye-ball” to live in, (though Emerson would no doubt approve!), but it’s nevertheless important to seek out environments to live and work in which allow you to maintain contact with nature. This is particularly the case if you can’t go down to the woods today, (or most days). Building encounters with the natural world into your day-to-day is crucial, if you want to give yourself the best chance of shaking off the mind-forg’d manacles of the urban rat race.

For everybody living in concrete jungles, the presence or absence of a well-placed workplace window can make the crucial difference between nature filtering through into your hard day’s night, or not at all. Bringing flora to the party where you don’t find it can also help you get your fix. If your office isn’t due for renovation any time soon and there’s no green in sight, try a plant-per-person policy — (wouldn’t it be great to see ivy growing up the shafts of the Shard in 2020?!)

By speaking up for nature in any building design plans you have input into, you can reduce the extent to which the architecture of our lives deprives us of the potential greenery outside. Home designs that dissolve boundaries between indoors and outdoors to facilitate our sense of nature connection benefit everybody; kids in particular. A childhood immersed in nature renders a person more likely to gravitate towards it and its attendant health benefits in adulthood. Most importantly of all, it instills a deep-running commitment to protecting the environment, sowing the seeds of change for a healthier planet.

"Transparent eyeball" as illustrated by Christopher Pearse Cranch, ca. 1836-1838

Article by Rosalind Stone