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The seas and trees

At peace on the beach
Tags: Health

The effects of water and nature on our brain and emotions

The health benefits of being near water are legendary. Remember the Ancient Romans and their baths? In the days before beachside was the most common summer holiday destination – the forests of the mountains were popular. One would 'take the air' or 'take the waters' – walking in it, bathing in it, and drinking it (in the case of mineral water). Here in Victoria, the mineral springs at Hepburn or here on the Mornington Peninsula have seen a recent revival.

We might have to deal with the stress of a thoroughly modern world, but our brain and emotions were not designed for it. We evolved to be close to nature, our psyches are soothed by it and this goes back millions of years.

In his TED talk 'A Darwinian Theory of Beauty', the art philosopher, the late Denis Dutton combined evolutionary psychology and a survey into contemporary preferences in art to point out that a 'beautiful' landscape was the same across all cultures (even polar peoples). The ideal landscape consisted of open spaces covered with low grass interspersed with trees – water – and surprisingly, a path. The theory is that all these elements are needed for human survival. Grass for animals to eat (and for humans to hunt), trees to escape predators, and water to drink. In our unconscious, this idyllic scene represents plenty (although where the path fits in is unclear).

Marine Biologist Wallace J. Nichols theorizes that we have a 'Blue mind' (the title of a recently published book) that is activated when we are in or near water. He says this is a 'mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment'.

The title of Nichols' book is 'Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do” published in July 2016.

So not just being near water can be beneficial, but standing under a shower, or even listening to water can be good for you. Free apps for your mobile phone include nature sounds such as a rain storm or ocean waves.

Our emotional connection to nature also seems different from the emotional connections in other areas of our lives, and can predict happiness – again this is separate from other psychological factors in our lives – it is special.

In current densely populated urban environments, despite attempts to preserve green spaces, it has been observed that nature is disappearing. Large back yards with lawn and trees have given way to small courtyards or balconies (in some cases not looking out over landscapes but over other high rise buildings). This separation from nature extends to modern psychiatric facilities, where gardens and water features in the past were considered an essential part of treatment.

Last year (2015) in Toronto, Canada, researchers surveyed 31,000 residents and superimposed them onto a map of the city. It showed that people living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic rate that was worth an extra $20,000 a year in income.

It is theorized that being in nature has a direct effect on the area of our brain involved in focused attention, decision making and performance. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah is currently researching whether or not attentional capacities can be restored by interacting with nature. He is studying whether exposure to nature lowers Theta waves coming from the pre-frontal cortex – hence increasing the ability to sustain focused attention.

Japanese researchers have found that even a 15 minute walk in nature causes measurable changes in physiology, including a 15% drop in the stress hormone cortisol and a 2% drop in blood pressure.

Does this mean you have to uproot and move to the seaside or the country?

Not necessarily.

There are many things you can do to optimise your exposure to nature without moving house:

  • Find the nearest park, forest, ocean, lake or river and visit regularly for that 15 minute walk
  • Use your outdoor space in your home or apartment to display greenery even in pots
  • If you have the space, plant a small tree
  • Include a water feature (there are tiny ones for small apartments)
  • Install a nature screensaver on your computer
  • Install an app that plays nature sounds (rain, frogs, crickets, ocean waves)

The Natural Resources Institute of Finland prescribes a minimum dose of 5 hours per month in nature. That's not too much to ask.

Prescribe yourself some nature on a regular basis and you'll be a lot happier and healthier for it.


The Health Benefits of Urban Nature: How Much Do We Need?

Coastal proximity, health and well-being: Results from a longitudinal panel survey

Why our brains love the ocean: Science explains what draws humans to the sea, by Wallace J Nichols author of 'Blue Mind'

This Is Your Brain on Nature in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Magazine, January 2016

Lost landscapes of healing: the decline of therapeutic mental health landscapes, by Julie Collins, Susan Avey & Peter Lekkas, published online 11 July 2016

A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, TED Talk by Denis Dutton