Connecting With Nature Improves Minds and Moods
By Marlene Cimons
Twentieth Century German social psychologist Erich Fromm first advanced the notion that humans hold an inborn connection to nature. Later, it was popularized by biologist E.O. Wilson as "the urge to affiliate with other forms of life." In the ensuing years, support for the positive effects of nature has gained considerable traction, grounded in a growing body of research.
In recent weeks, at least four new studies have emerged adding more validity to what science repeatedly has revealed: Being around nature is good for us. The latest research shows that interacting with nature makes the brain stronger and soothes the psyche.
One study, for example, found healthy brain changes among elderly city dwellers who live near forests. Another showed positive effects of exposure to residential green spaces on the attention span of children. A third suggested that even a brief encounter with something natural—the aforementioned little flower, for example—can elevate one's mood. Finally, another study concluded that there are certain outdoor places—rural and coastal areas—that make people happier than other locations, such as urban gardens or parks.
Collectively, the work sends a powerful message about Mother Nature as a valuable resource for human health. Moreover, it underscores the importance of protecting the environment at a time when it has come under increasing stress from climate change and urbanization.
"Exposure to nature increases people's social wellbeing," said Holli-Anne Passmore, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus and author of a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology that showed even a fleeting look at something natural can make a difference. And yet, today "we are becoming more disconnected from the nature around us, nature that we inherently are a part of, not separate from," she added.
In addition to Passmore's research, the new studies across Europe revealed a host of benefits that stem from time spent in nature. Scientists in Berlin at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development found that elderly city-dwellers who lived not far from forests—within a radius of about 1 or 2 kilometers—had higher activity levels in their amygdala, a central nucleus in the brain that plays an important role in stress processing and reactions to danger, than those who lived near urban green spaces. "I think it is a very novel thought at least for the neurosciences that the environment has an impact on plasticity of the brain," said lead author Simone Kühn. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Life in the city can produce chronic stress from noise, pollution and over-population. In her study of elderly city dwellers, Kühn, who now works at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, wanted to find out whether proximity to a forest could help them cope.
She found that those living close to a forest were more likely to show signs of a healthy amygdala, although the same was not true for those who lived near urban green spaces. Study participants were given memory and reasoning tests, and underwent MRI brain imaging. Kühn suggested it might be wise for urban planners "[to try] to integrate forests, not only parks, in cities maybe," adding advice for city home buyers: "One should carefully select not only the flat or the house, but also take the surroundings into account."
Children's brain development enhanced by exposure to green spaces. Pixabay
Over in Spain, researchers studying 1,500 children in two towns found that those whose homes were surrounded by green—shrubs and bushes, trees and flowers—scored higher on two different cognitive attention tests than those who lived in houses that did not have any vegetation around them. "More contact with greenness is associated with improved brain development in children, which is very important, given that such an improvement could result in an advantage in mental capital, which, in turn, would have long-lasting life course effects," said Payam Dadvand, first author of the study, which appeared in the journal Environment Health Perspectives.
The children's study built upon two earlier studies, one that suggested that greenness at schools also was related to enhanced cognitive development in schoolchildren, and a second that found children who spent more time playing in green spaces were less likely to show behavioral and emotional problems, such as hyperactivity and inattentiveness.
Coastal areas boost people's sense of happiness. Pixabay
To the north, English scientists found that spending time in rural or coastal settings was more psychologically uplifting than visiting urban green spaces, such as city gardens and parks. The study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, asked participants to describe their excursions and determined that the subjects experienced greater feelings of relaxation and refreshment, as well as stronger emotional connections to the natural world, in coastal or rural regions, especially if they spent more than 30 minutes in the setting.
They also found that visits to protected or designated areas—national parks, for example—produced the same results. "We found that our mental wellbeing and our emotional bond with nature may differ, depending on the type and quality of an environment we visit," said Kayleigh Wyles, lead author, who conducted the research while at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and who is now a lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Surrey.
Passmore's research, which took place during a two-week period, examined how people felt when they took only a moment in their daily routines to notice something natural around them. They were told to jot down a short note about how they responded to it. Passmore compared this group to two other groups, one tracking their reactions to human-built objects, like a desk or chair, and a third, which did neither.
The sense of well-being among those who focused on natural objects was significantly higher than either of the two control groups, according to the study. One participant, for example, who looked upward at the sky wrote: "It made me feel free because the sky is endless." Another, who noticed the sun, wrote: "Made me feel hopeful, the sun never stops rising."
Most people needn't leave their own space to take advantage of nature's benefits, Passmore said. "People are searching for ways to improve their wellbeing," she said. "One way to do that is simply to notice the nature around you on a daily basis, and notice how it makes you feel. Even in cities, there are trees, birds, leaves, sunshine and stars. Plants and flowers indoors. Noticing nearby nature does not require additional time. It is one way to add boosts of happiness and wonder to your day."
City dwellers enjoy Central Park in New York. Pixabay
Based on their findings, the English researchers stressed the importance of protecting rural settings and coastlines, the latter in particular since it is under increasing threat from rising sea levels and storm surges fueled by climate change-induced extreme weather.
"It was surprising to learn that the extent of protection of marine environments also affects the extent of mental health benefits that people gain from their interactions with the sea," said Mel Austen, head of the sea and society science area at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. "People's health is likely to become an increasingly important aspect to consider as we manage our coasts and waters."
Passmore grew up in a city—Edmonton, Canada—but spent considerable time as a youth in her family's cabin in the woods, and later, as an adult, camping, biking and canoeing. "I have always loved nature and how it makes me feel," she said. "All of this research—mine and others—on the benefits of nature is important. It indicates ways for people to become happier [and] increase their wellbeing. Valuing the natural world around us is vital to our wellbeing on a short-term daily basis, and of course to our survival as a species."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.