I’m depressed and anxious but I dose myself up on nature again. I get to know the local Cooks River through daily walks. I feel the anxiety drain away as I walk through a patch of paperbark trees. My mood and confidence lifts.
I’ve been using the natural world to get rid of my headaches and improve my focus and concentration. But it turns out nature also relieves my depression and anxiety!
Later I spoke to Honorary Associate Professor Mardie Townsend from Deakin University’s School of Health and Social Development. Parks Victoria asked Mardie to gather evidence of how parks affect us. She’s also collaborated with BeyondBlue to do a global literature review of research around nature and the brain.
Mardie’s studies involved taking people with depression and anxiety into parks and measuring their emotions and mood before and after. One of her studies looked at the benefits of doing voluntary work, like weeding and planting. She found people got significant benefits from doing voluntary work in nature compared to volunteering anywhere else.
Mardie Townsend: I would say contact with nature helps people’s mental health and wellbeing because it is a relaxing environment. People tend to leave behind their cares and concerns because they are hearing the sounds of the Bush. They are Hearing the water and the birds and the wind through the trees. They’re seeing things that are fascinating and that sort of soft fascination is an important element in taking people outside of their concerns for themselves. So you know you go out there and you can’t help but be captivated by the beauty of nature.
Mardie also studied nature-based intervention programs like outdoor expeditions for people battling drug and alcohol dependence or mental health problems.
She supervised outdoor educators while they took these people on big trips for a couple of weeks into the outback.
Mardie Townsend: You know almost without exception there was significant transformation in those people’s lives as a result of that program. Where they came back They could actually start to engage in economic activity work of some form or another where they could start to rebuild family relationships where they had actually broken the nexus of the drug dependence or the alcohol dependence.
These people are transformed in the natural world, they return able to cope with their lives in a way they couldn’t before. I have a similar experience when I start doing solo day hikes.
I wouldn’t have considered heading into the bush alone before the accident. But now I’m known for turning up to school pick-ups in shorts and hiking boots. My legs are more toned and tanned than ever. Other parents probably think I’m weird or lazy. What does she do all day?
But no doctor has told me to use nature. Or even encouraged me really.
Five months after I sustained a mild traumatic brain injury nature seems to be helping me to read more newspapers and magazines. Doctor’s waiting rooms aren’t so tedious. One day I’m waiting to see my GP and browsing a magazine and I stumble across a story about the health benefits of gardening. I start to join the dots.
I’m sitting in my friend Leonie’s kitchen and I tell her about this article and how nature’s working for me. I ask her if this is why she calls weeding eco-therapy, is this actually a thing?! She goes into her living room and comes back with a National Geographic story about nature and the brain. There’s science to this! It’s real! I have a new lease on life.
I always knew I enjoyed nature but it would take a brain injury to discover it’s good for me. Now I wanna know why. What exactly is it about nature that’s good for our brains? Would nature still work if I didn’t appreciate it?
What’s my optimum dose – local park, national park or just my backyard – aeroplanes and all? What’s actually going on here?
Avik Basu: As you know probably from your own experience the attention seems to be in shorter and short supply whereas the things grabbing our attention seem to be much much higher supply these days.
My name is Avik Basu I’m an environmental psychologist and I’m a research area specialist and lecturer at the school for environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan.
Sarah: I got up at 5am to speak with Avik on skype. It sounds like he’s describing my life.
Avik Basu: We’ve got a lot of things to pay attention to. And n ot a lot of attentional capacity perhaps attention is not something that’s unlimited. So you use your attention muscle and it gets tired and it needs to replenish itself. The problem is that in the modern world there aren’t a lot of opportunities for the attention muscle to replenish itself. Turns out that being in natural environments is an excellent way to replenish the muscle, but not if you’re on your phone.
Mmmmmm I’m guilty of sharing too many photos while I’m at the beach. Maybe I should do it later.
Nature seems to be good for our brains. And there’s a bunch of theories about why and how.
One that kept coming up in my research was Attention Restoration Theory. Almost every expert I spoke to referred to Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. The couple were professors at the University of Michigan. They specialised in environmental psychology.
In the late 80s the Kaplan’s developed this Attention Restoration Theory. It’s inspired lots of the research around the benefits of nature. They recently retired so Rachel referred me to their colleague we just heard from, Avik Basu.
Avik Basu: So there are a lot of studies that look at very simple ways of interacting with nature – potted plants. Little community garden or view out the window. That all of those things are so much better than not having those any of those experiences because most many people go by weeks months without any real interactions with nature.
Sarah: And how and how do they survive? Like If we know that it’s so good for us. How do those people who don’t have access or knowledge that it’s something they should be prioritising and how do they how do they function OK?
Avik Basu: I would say that the cost of living in modern environments is reflected in a lot of the pathologies that we nowadays see and think about A.D.H.D think about overwork over-stress. People always looking for respite doing yoga. Like all these kinds of things. Why is that. Is there a relationship here to the kinds of places that we’ve built for ourselves? And how different it is from the environments that our brains evolved in. It’s got to be some cost there.
Sarah: Associate Professor Marc Berman also studied under Rachel and Stephen Kaplan.
Marc Berman: Steve was always a big proponent of how brief interactions with nature could sort of improve people’s attention and I was just really fascinated by it.
Sarah: Marc continues to explore attention restoration theory at the environmental neuroscience lab he runs at the University of Chicago.
Marc Berman: One of the major tenets of the theory is that humans have two different kinds of attention. So one kind of attention is called directed attention where you as an individual person control what you’re going to pay attention to. And it’s thought that that kind of attention is sort of fatiguable or depletable that you can only sort of focus your attention for so long before you become mentally fatigued and you can’t do it anymore. And we’ve all kind of had that sensation you know after a long day of work it becomes difficult to concentrate.
Sarah: Directed attention is what you’re doing right now. Listening to this podcast and trying to make sense of it. Reading, writing, dealing with your emails.
Then there’s hard fascination. That’s someone’s loud phone conversation. Sirens. Alerts on your phone. You automatically respond.
Avik Basu: Hard fascination is also watching a movie with a lot of violence or sex or other things that you can’t turn away from like the train wreck likewise a lot of stuff on social media now. Like when you if you use Facebook or any of these other tools they’re hard to turn away from. Why. Because they’re employing the hard fascination aspect of our attention.
Sarah: So there’s all this intense stuff we have to deal with in our modern lives. Some we need to concentrate on and some just grabs our attention automatically. Our emails and work require our directed attention but we lose the capacity to focus properly when we’re over-stimulated by hard fascination – things like social media and the sounds and sights of our cities.
Then there’s the opposite – soft fascination. The stimulation that’s good for our brains and doesn’t take any work to focus on.
Mark Berman: We also talk about a concept of soft fascination that a lot of natural stimulation is softly fascinating that you can you can focus on a waterfall or the leaves swaying in the wind or ripples in a river. And it captures your attention and is interesting to look at but it doesn’t sort of capture all of your attentional resources you could still kind of mind wander and think of other things.
So you don’t often hear people say wow I’m really exhausted looking at that beautiful painting or you know I’m too tired to look at that beautiful waterfall it’s just too fatiguing.
Sarah: Now why is that?
Avik Basu: You can kind of zone out while you’re looking at these things in nature and nature is full of these elements. And so that’s what soft fascination is.
Attention restoration theory in a nutshell is soft fascination allows for the restoration of voluntary or directed attention.
Sarah: According to Marc and Avik the idea is to find somewhere softly stimulating that allows your brain to zone out. I told Marc about the day before when I was sitting at my computer, struggling to work, feeling brain dead and exhausted. I went outside. I lay on the lush grass under a massive pecan tree. I gazed up at its branches and leaves. I’m supposed to be working (on this podcast for you) but I’m not getting anywhere. I take ten minutes and stare up at this tree. I come back inside to my computer. It’s like I’ve had a coffee but without the speedy feeling. What happened?
Marc Berman: So you were looking at this the pecan tree. And it was sort of interesting to look maybe the leaves were kind of moving in the wind that captured your attention it captured your involuntary attention. you didn’t have to use a lot of heavy concentration and you can kind of just let your mind go and be automatically captured by the stimulation.
And therefore we think you kind of recovered your directed attention resources which allowed you to kind of be ready to work when you returned from that little break outside.
Sarah: But is nature really doing anything, or is it just that I got away from my computer and took a break?
Marc Berman: So we think it’s an active process. So it’s not interacting with an environment that is absent of stimulation. And the problem like going to a dark room is probably going to be boring boring and boredom is fatiguing. So it’s it’s finding this stimulation that kind of captured your attention and not placing demands on directed attention
Avik Basu: one of the important aspects of being in nature in front of softly fascinating natural environments is that it allows you opportunities for reflection. So Reflection is important because. During much of our daily lives we’re accumulating mental garbage like lots of like little thoughts little ideas things you see on the screens little anxieties that pop up here and there and you’re accumulating all of those things and. Often we don’t have time to clean up that garbage. The clean up of those, those little threads that are running in your head are essential to functioning well. the claim that we make in the paper is that. The amount of bandwidth that is occupied by garbage or what we call like mental sort of threads. Internal noise is In fact the phrase we use the amount of bandwidth that’s taken up by internal noise means that there’s less bandwidth available for you to carry out purposes and goals. And those threads of internal noise are also eating up that limited voluntary attention capacity that we were talking about before.
Sarah: Being in nature, reflecting, it’s like taking out the garbage in your brain. But hang on, no one likes taking out the garbage.
Avik Basu: So there’s not a link between liking and restoration.
Sarah: do you mean if someone really likes going to the mall that doesn’t mean it’s restorative?
Exactly. You like looking on your phone for whatever. You like watching this or that movie. Well people think those kinds of things are relaxing. Right. They come home after day of work and they sit down and watch something. But in fact that’s not likely to be very restorative because it doesn’t allow much room for reflection and the garbage cleaning that we were talking about earlier.
Sarah: Nature’s helped me bounce back significantly. But there’s still plenty of work to do. Get back to work. Feel like my old self. Get back on my bike – literally.
One of my specialists often mentioned brain plasticity. “I am confident you will get there Sarah. I say this to you every time, but each time I see you the improvement is marked”.
This brain injury rehab doctor, Dr Stuart Browne, also told me he didn’t feel like he was contributing much to my recovery, that he wasn’t really doing anything. But he patiently answered my list of questions and kept boosting my confidence and belief that I’d keep getting better.
Later, when I’m no longer a patient, he lets me interview him. I really wanna know what this doctor thinks of how I’ve used nature.
Turns out that even though he’s a keen bushwalker himself he doesn’t actually buy into this whole concept that nature changes our brains.
Dr Stuart Browne: I’m not sure specifically nature but undoubtedly things that are not as busy are clearly going to be better than. So I don’t think it necessarily has to be a nature setting. So it doesn’t surprise me but I don’t think it is necessarily specific to the natural world.
While I was researching this podcast Scotland’s Shetland Islands launched a project to get doctors to prescribe nature under its National Health System.
But it’s a difficult area to study. I asked that environmental psychologist – Avik Basu about this.
Avik Basu: So there have been a series of studies for the last 40 years I want to say something like that that have looked at the impact nature has had lots of different groups from kids to adults to cancer patients to prisoners
Sarah: So it seems like there’s been like you say 40 years of research yet and in some ways it seems quite obvious and intuitive when you say oh you know being in nature is good for us. But then I have also found that I had to figure that out for myself. It wasn’t like anybody said go and spend some time in nature like it’s not. It still seems like it’s a little bit on the fringes and it’s not widely acknowledged by at least the medical community. Do you think that’s right?
Avik Basu: I think in general that’s true. I have seen little bits and pieces of stories that suggest that some doctors are prescribing walks in nature as a medicine. There have been a few articles that have looked at ADHD in kids and found that having a recess outside is comparable or even better than taking some of the typical ADHD medications. So you’re right it hasn’t pierced the bubble of the medical community. Perhaps because there is no profit for drug makers or so forth to there’s no profit to be made if nature is readily available.
Sarah: Nearly seven months after the accident I’m still not back at work. But I manage to get through a few pages of the novel I read before the crash. It’s hard work for my brain but I push through. I’m so excited to pass this milestone. The pressure builds in my head from the strain but I keep reading. I breathe through it. I don’t worry that I’m not 100 percent sure what’s going on. When a headache comes on and grows worse I put the novel down. But this is huge progress!
I’m going back to work in a few weeks but I’m feeling pretty nervous about it.