Over the past few months, I’ve been writing about the different ways that nature affects human health, from lowering blood pressure and decreasing aggression, to healing trauma and helping us think more creatively, and act more cooperatively and respectfully towards others.
Why does nature affect us in these ways?
One interesting theory is that nature requires a different type of attention than human-built environments, leading it to play a restorative function for human attention.
Researchers who support the restoration hypothesis propose that the importance of nature in human life stems from the fact that our human brains co-evolved with other creatures and with rivers, rocks, winds, skies, mountains, trees, and plants.
And while over the years humanity has experienced high rates of cultural and technological change, the rate of biological evolution has been quite slow, leading human nervous systems today to be virtually the same as those of our long-ago ancestors.
In fact, the role of nature in renewing humans’ ability to concentrate is considered by many scientists to be an evolutionary adaptation. The type of constant, linear attention to a specific task required within urban lifestyles and jobs increasingly over the last 100 years would have been dangerous, even deadly, for our ancestors, since they could have been easily surprised by predators.
Instead of focusing for a long time on one thing in particular, our ancestors needed to be constantly aware of their surroundings and to frequently shift their awareness. Stephen Kaplan argues that natural settings require a reduced amount of energy and effort compared with urban, or what some might consider to be more ‘civilized’ settings, even if the latter settings are more familiar to many of us today.
Specifically, the human body is thought to respond instinctively to nature in a way that it cannot to the built environment.
I don't fully buy the restoration hypothesis as the answer to the 'why' question - I suspect there is more going on than just restoration (remember, for example, how plants have biomedical properties that are affecting us every time we step outside, whether we realize it or not).
But no matter! Just get outside today, away from the buildings and constant demands that surround you, and let those instincts take over. And then do it all over again tomorrow.
Kaplan, Rachel. (2001). The nature of the view from home: Psychological benefits. Environment and Behavior, 33(4), 507-542.
Kaplan, Stephen. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182.