Renowned naturalist, writer, and biologist, E.O. Wilson theorized that humans have an innate connection to the environment, an evolutionary trait coined by Kellert & Wilson (1993) as biophilia. They argue that an intimate understanding of natural processes and ecosystem interactions were advantageous to humans through time to find necessities like food, water, and shelter. Thus, humans with a stronger connection to nature “would have a significant evolutionary advantage over those who were not connected” (Capaldi et al., 2014).
Due to factors including capitalism, the emergence of technology, and legal liability, children are spending less time interacting with their natural environments, leading to adults that do not have a strong connection with nature (Louv, 2005). Although we live in a world that is increasingly scientifically literate and aware of the global community, a lack of nature connection to one’s local places can be detrimental to the future of humanity. If this sounds like an overstatement, then let me explain. Humans need nature and nature needs humans. Capaldi et al. (2014) exclaim that “… a sustainable future and a happy future are compatible and symbiotic, not mutually exclusive.” (p. 12). A strong connection to nature has positive effects on the mental and physical wellbeing of humans including the reduced risk of type 2 diabetes (Astell-Burt et al., 2014), obesity (Ghimire et al., 2017), hospitalization from asthma (Alcock et al., 2017), and cardiovascular disease (Seo et al., 2017), as well as benefits to mental and emotional health (Capaldi et al., 2014).
Even acute nature exposure has benefits to human physiology; Song et al. (2014) found that a short 15-minute walk in a natural setting significantly lowered the heart rate, increased parasympathetic nervous system activity (rest and digest), and decreased sympathetic nervous system activity (fight or flight) compared to a 15-minute walk in city streets. Spending time in nature also boasts benefits to the immune system; Li (2010) identified that natural killer cells, an aspect of our immune system that protects us from disease, were present in significantly higher numbers following a 3-day nature experience, compared to pre-trip levels. Further, the increased natural killer cell levels persisted for at least 30 days following the nature experience (Li, 2010).
There is a vast body of research outlining the benefits of nature to humans, thus irrefutably recognizing that nature is good for us. The ‘how’ of the benefits of nature experience and connection is much less obvious. Did you know that the smell of nature is strongly correlated to the human benefits of spending time in nature? Li et al. (2009) identified that aromatic volatile substances which are found in trees contribute to the increased immune response outlined by Li (2010). Furthermore, volatiles such as the essential oils from the leaves of C. japonica have demonstrated stress-relieving effects (Cheng, 2009). Finally, aromatic volatile substances from trees have demonstrated strong antioxidant properties which are helpful for overall human health (Cuitillas et al., 2018).
Do you ever take a moment in nature to just listen? What do you hear? Science tells us that even the soundscape of nature has benefits to our wellbeing. Payne (2012) found that rural or remote soundscapes had a higher restorative and relaxing value than an urban soundscape, and distinct nature sounds like birdsong were “… considered helpful for restoration, which may speak to a biophilic perspective in which these sounds symbolise vitality of nature and a sense of all being well in the world…” (Ratcliffe et al., 2013. p. 227). There are, in fact, adverse health effects of noise; the soundscape of urban centres is associated with an increased risk of hypertension and heart attack (Kaltenbach et al., 2008; Hahad et al., 2019). In a time where we are constantly surrounded by human-made noise, nature provides solace and solution.
It is impossible to ignore the current climate crisis; grief, worry, and guilt are emotions that we face when thinking about the current and future state of our planet. The recent report published by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2021) writes that “human activities are indisputably causing climate change”, however, just as human behaviour can be to blame for the current crisis, it can also be the solution. Connection to nature leads to an intimate relationship with one’s place; a relationship of caring and keen observation. A body of research has demonstrated that human connection to nature leads to strong engagement in pro-environmental behaviours including “conservation of energy and water, anticonsumerism, pro-environmental political activism, and financial support of environmental organizations.” (Whitburn et al., 2019) thus indicating that the future of our sustainable environment is in the hands of humans.
So… Do you need another excuse to get outside today?
Written by: Lily Dart, Engagement Strategist
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