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Elan Vitae


  • Michael Scholtz


“We’ve known for a long time that athletes and artists can easily access flow states: the idea that the rest of us can touch that zone through nature is tantalizing.” – Dr. David Strayer, quoted in The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, 2017.

Scientists are just beginning to explain something human beings have experienced for centuries. Nature makes you feel good. And when you feel good, your brain works better. Ironically, by slowing down and taking in the scenery, it seems you might find one of the most powerful tools for living a more productive and creative life. And it’s hidden in plain sight just outside your front door.

Human beings are innately connected to Mother Earth. Though experts like Gretchen Daily, director of the Natural Capital Project, believe that by the year 2050 two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, our time on Earth until very recently has disproportionately been spent outdoors. That means that even though modern life is rife with distractions and insulation from natural settings that cause us to be desensitized to nature, the instincts that developed over millennia in the wild are still present inside us.

This tug of war between our modern conveniences and ancient instincts has been described by two theories. One is called Nature Deficit Disorder, coined by author Richard Louv to underscore the detrimental effects of spending less time in nature. Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, including over 10 hours per day, on average, viewing a screen. Some of the negative impacts are higher levels of stress, inflammation, depression, and lower cognitive ability.

The other theory is Biophilia, first described by Erich Fromm as “the passionate love of life and all that is alive” and then popularized by American biologist E.O. Wilson in 1984. It is Wilson who has helped us understand the persistence of humans’ innate connection to the land. His assertion is that since we evolved in nature, we have learned to love and feel at home among the things that helped us to survive.

Therefore, the benefits when you venture outdoors are quite predictable. And they are utterly astounding when measured by modern methods. Spending time in nature reduces stress, decreases experiences of pain, improves sleep, bolsters immunity, protects from cancer, prolongs lives, ramps up energy, fosters feelings of community and belonging, and boosts positive emotions.

Two other key theories have helped in the understanding of the mechanisms behind these benefits. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) is the work of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan. ART suggests that nature enables you to use less of your directed attention, the type you call upon to organize your daily calendar or stay focused on an important work project. Instead, you access “soft fascination” using that part of your brain that lights up when you’re not actively thinking about things, and you can let your mind wander. This reduces cognitive fatigue, improves your mood, and then lowers stress.

Similarly, Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) also focuses on nature’s positive effects on stress. The primary difference between the two theories is the timing of the stress relief. SRT suggests that nature has an immediate and profound effect on lowering stress, followed by an increase in sustained attention, and then a boost in mood.

Researchers are working on figuring out just how much nature you need to reap these benefits. One of Dr. David Strayer’s studies discovered that 3 days in nature, disconnected from phones and other devices, produced an incredible 50% rise in creativity! This underscores the need to truly “get away from it all” from time to time. Nature immersion provides an opportunity to hit the reset button and immerge more focused, connected, and creatively potent.

But what if that active vacation is still a few months away? Or perhaps you don’t possess the level of wanderlust that calls you to disconnect for days at a time in the wild. Fear not, because scientists are discovering that even small doses of nature can have a positive impact.

In 2015 an Australian study revealed upticks in sustained attention after just a 40 seconds of viewing nature out of a window. And it’s widely accepted that 15-20 minutes of nature exposure lowers the stress hormone cortisol, reduces heart rate, and leads to a drop in blood pressure. Plus, if you can’t get out at all, photographs of nature and recorded nature sounds have also proved to be effective in helping us relax.

Whatever way you choose to introduce nature into your life, the data make a clear statement that nature produces significant reductions in stress levels and increases powerful positive emotions. And that’s exactly the mental space you need to help you be more creative.

A 2018 study by KJH Williams, et al. explains, “Soft fascination gives our directed attention a break and creates an incubation period where the brain may simply sit with ideas rather than actively trying to solve them. This might combine with mind wandering which occurs when the default network (a part of the brain connected to greater empathy and insight) is more active and can support creativity by eliciting new associations between seemingly unconnected ideas.”

Perhaps the most intriguing part about the connection to nature is that you don’t have to do anything besides experience nature to get a boost in creativity. You don’t have to exercise, though you will get an extra boost in mental health, fitness, and creativity if you do. And you don’t have to meditate. In fact, for those who are unfamiliar with formal meditation practice, the “open awareness" that nature produces is a better way to access mental restoration and the creativity that comes with it. According to Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, the authors of ART mentioned above, “exposure to nature may support inexperienced or otherwise challenged meditators who would otherwise be at risk of losing concentration completely or becoming emotionally overwhelmed.”

Creativity makes you more productive at work, helps you more fully enjoy your own or others’ expressions of art, literature, and music, and increases your ability to see new perspectives and find new solutions to problems.

Whenever you need a little inspiration, let Mother Nature be your muse!

Photo credit: Tim Manske


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