NATURE'S CALL TO WILD

Updated: Oct 9

Wild by Nature: the inside desire for the outside


Science is proving what we've always known intuitively: nature does good things to the human brain—it makes us healthier, happier, and smarter.

David Gessner, National Geographic [1].

In 1984, Biologist Edward O. Wilson conceived the term ‘biophilia’ to describe his theory that humans have an instinctive bond with nature ingrained in our genetics, and that we have an innate love of natural settings as a result of our evolutionary history [2]. It is, after all, what we were designed to look at and experience, in order to survive.


One could say that being outdoors or participating in physical activity helps to raise energy levels and improve one’s mood. Natural opiates (or ‘happy hormones’) like serotonin and endorphins, released by our brains during exercise, are partially responsible of this. However, the study of the neurological, physical, and emotional responses to nature (including the long-term impact of exposure) are much more complex, and much is still unknown. Dr Wallace Nichols - drawing inspiration from psychologists, neuroscientists, environmentalists, artists, and athletes delves into these internal connections that humans have with nature in his book “Blue Mind” [2].

Nichols, among other leading scientists, explore the use of novel technology that can monitor brain activity (via EEG/fMRI scans) which can help us understand better the neurochemical basis of our emotions and how our external environment interacts with our internal one. As a result, we may be able to better understand how this exposure makes us happier, more connected, focused, and efficient.



When we get closer to nature—be it untouched wilderness or a backyard tree—we do our overstressed brains a favor.

Florence Williams, National Geographic [1].



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What’s really going on up there?

fMRI scan case studies in brief:

· The anterior cingulate and insula are areas of the brain associated with empathy and altruism. These areas became more active when subjects viewed natural scenes. Increased activity in the amygdala- the area of the brain associated with threat, anxiety, and stress- occurred when the same subjects viewed urban scenes [2]. This is believed to be the case due to the mental strains, overstimulation, or ‘nervous irritation’ presented by busy urban environments, whilst the effortless, non-demanding, soft focus/fascination we have with nature allows our brain to de-stress, rest, reflect, and recover. This is known as the attention restoration theory [1].

· The subgenual prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain associated with depressive contemplation/disorders. Decreased activity here was seen as a result of subjects taking walks through nature [1].

· Nature scenes produced greatest activity in the basal ganglia among volunteers, the area on the brain also triggered by remembering happy memories or seeing happy faces [2].

· Views of natural settings activate the brains reward system, the area rich with opioid receptors that trigger feelings of wellness, and can even trigger the same feelings of reward we get from success and money [2].

These results highlight how surrounding yourself with nature will bring about feelings of happiness, wellness, and empathy, allow time for reflection and relaxation, and possibly most importantly: recovery. If that’s not motivation enough to get out and experience a new outdoor adventure, I’m not sure what is.

References

1. Williams, F., 2017. Call to the Wild: This Is Your Brain on Nature. National Geographic.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/

2. Nichols, W., 2014. Blue Mind. USA: Little, Brown and Company.

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