The author and journalist, Florence Williams is zig-zagging through a patch of prickly pear cacti toward the San Juan River. Walls of hematite rock and soft bluffs of red soil line the river bank. She steps carefully and spots a grassy opening where she can sit and watch the water flow by. It’s been days since she’s looked at her phone or computer screen and — besides the 12 electrodes strapped to her head analyzing her brain waves — she is completely at one with nature.
Williams is a participant in an outdoor study trip led by cognitive psychologist, David Strayer. He’s attempting to answer the question: “What happens to our brain when we’re in nature?” With one control group sitting in a parking lot, and another at the river’s edge, the portal EEG device will analyze everyone’s brain waves. The data will show Strayer and his team how the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s command center — is affected by the different environments.
Thoreau had his cabin. Whitman had his Leaves of Grass. And Virginia Woolf found inspiration among soft strolls in the countryside. Writers, poets, and philosophers have long been aware of the benefits of being outdoors. Strayer, however, is on a mission to catch these mysterious brain changes in the act.
Humans evolved outdoors so it shouldn’t come as a surprise how connected — and dependent — our minds and bodies are to nature. Multiple studies have shown that people who can see trees from their hospital windows recover faster. In Illinois, a researcher named Frances Kuo found that the more trees a housing project had, the lower the crime rate. Obesity, depression, and low sex drive are all associated with too much time indoors. And while artificial light lets us decide when our days begin and end, our hardwiring isn’t fooled. Our eyeballs crave natural sunlight. And they rely on it to tell the brain when it’s time to start pumping that sweet serotonin.
Over the last decade, data has poured in from the East and the West that proves time spent in nature helps people combat stress, lower blood pressure, and improve their overall sense of well-being. The Japanese even developed what they call, shinrin-yoku — the practice of “forest bathing.” Now, if you’re picturing naked bodies swan diving into piles of fallen leaves, you might not be far off, however, forest bathing can be as simple as activating all the senses while in nature. It’s feeling the wind, hearing the stream, and smelling the pine. It’s standing among the trees and taking massive gulps of the fresh air they help create.
It’s sad to think that for all the time I spent lost in anxiety inside my house, the antidote might have been waiting right outside my door. I remember a trip to Big Sur I took with Ava when my robotic tendencies were still at their worst. Standing there in awe under the redwoods, my bare feet frozen in the creek near our campsite. It all became so obvious to me in that moment: This is where I came from. This is where I belong. This is all a part of me.
It was there, standing face-to-face with nature, that I felt my brain dial down and shoulders finally relax.
A week after the experiment, Florence Williams returned to the city and received the EEG test results from Strayer. It was just as expected. The brain scans showed that the participants who sat in nature for three days, compared to those who stayed in the city, had a more relaxed prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is a muscle like any other, and when it goes on and on without dialing down, it strains. But when it relaxes, a bridge between our conscious and subconscious mind connects — sparking creativity, calmness, and feelings of contentment.
It’s nice to see the data catch up with what most of us intuitively have known all along. Henry David Thoreau didn’t need any electrodes strapped to his skull to tell us a grassy river bank was more relaxing than a busy parking lot. Though, both science and poetry fall short in being able to fully explain the cosmic connection humans have to nature. John Muir — who wrote more extensively and beautifully about the outdoors than perhaps anyone — came close with just eight words: “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
There’s a reason people say things like, “the walls are closing in” when they’re stressed out. It’s because the daily hustle of modern life shrinks our point of view. It blinds us to the world living outside the bounds of our ego. We hear it all the time, “I just need to getaway. I need an escape.” That’s nature calling.
The world is easier to appreciate when you don’t think of yourself as the center of it. And while it might seem counterintuitive, the easiest way to reconnect with ourselves is by letting go of our own point of view. Nature is there to remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. All that hurry, worry, and urgency of what we thought we needed seem to slip away when gazing up at the stars or standing on a mountain. From nature, we can take an important lesson that war strategist and philosopher Lao Tzu once observed, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
It's nature that begs us to ask ourselves the important questions:
Why are we here?
What is our purpose?
What am I doing to make this world a better place?
The next time you feel blocked, stressed, or the general malaise of life creep in, allow nature to smooth the edges. Walk among the trees, stare at the moon, or put your feet in the ocean. Give your eyes a break from the screen and hold some soil in your hand.
When it comes time to reconnect with yourself, remember: You’re connected to everything.