In this conversational and personal account, journalist Florence Williams travels widely to track down our deep connection to the natural landscape.
by Jim Schmid
Spoiler alert: journalist Florence Williams distills what she learned from years of studying nature/brain research into her ultrasimple coda: “Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.”
To find out how she came up with this coda we join Outside contributing editor Williams as she sets out to uncover the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. After Williams and her family moved from Colorado to Washington, DC she started to question why she was feeling down. Being a journalist she set out on a journey to not only learn but to heal.
In this conversational and personal account, Williams travels widely to track down our deep connection to the natural landscape.
Among the many places her research took her was to cypress forests in Korea and Japan to spend time with rangers who conduct forest healing programs, to Scotland to learn of their outdoor approach to caring for the mentally ill, and to Idaho to join a group of Iraqi vets suffering from PTSD who describe the therapeutic effects of wilderness after a trip along the Salmon River. On many of these adventures she volunteered to be the researcher’s guinea pig, including wearing a portable EEG unit in the woods to track changes in her brain waves.
Williams echoes the “benefits of a walk in the woods” thinking of Romantics and philosophers over the centuries, and of nature writers like John Muir who in 1867 set out into the wilderness “to find the Law that governs the relations subsisting between human beings and Nature.” More recently we have the examples of biologist E.O. Wilson’s 1984 concept of biophilia (a bond between humans and nature), and Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (2008) and The Nature Principle (2011). Building on these past exhortations to get out in nature Williams delves into the neuroscience of “why” being in nature proves so beneficial.
Williams found that current neuroscience studies are giving us the tools to test how things like the smell of trees, quiet green space, and urban vs. natural views affect the brain. Studies show that as little as 15 minutes in the woods reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Increase nature exposure to 45 minutes, and most people experience improvements in cognitive performance.
The next big jump is what is termed “the three-day effect.” The idea that it takes two days in the wilderness to wash away whatever veneer of civilization you brought with you and a new reality begins on that third day.
Wanting to learn more about “the three-day effect” took Williams to the University of Utah where she spent time with cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer. In 2012 Strayer published a study conducted with his colleagues Paul and Ruth Ann Atchley from the University of Kansas to try and understand what was going on inside the brain during outdoor trips.
They administered tests to 28 backpackers before and after going on Outward Bound trips. Immediately after a trip, the participants performed 47 percent better in a word-test game that measures creative thinking and insight problem-solving. Stayer believes the frontal cortex (our taskmaster) of the backpacker’s brains got a much-needed break during the trips. When the attention network is freed up, other parts of the brain appear to take over, like those associated with sensory perception, empathy, and productive day-dreaming.
Williams joined Strayer and a group of his students on a trip in the Utah backcounty where she wore a portable EEG unit to track changes in her brain waves. She experienced the relaxing effect of being outside and even had her brain wave chart to prove it.
As trail advocates, builders, and users we each have our stories of how just being out in nature is good for our mind, body, and soul. Sometimes the best books are those that remind us of these simple truths— among them “just get outside.”
Many of us share our passion for trails by helping others get outdoors, whether it’s building a trail or leading a group in the wilderness. In the 1990s when I was the South Carolina State Trails Coordinator our slogan was “Hey, Get on a Trail.” We weren’t pushing any one activity; we just wanted people to experience the outdoors, preferably on a trail.
Now that I’m retired I find myself repeating the “Get on a Trail” mantra when I’m feeling a bit down or just overwhelmed with day-to-day chores. My wife Sandra and I take a walk with our dog Willow on a nearby trail most
evenings after dinner. We all enjoy being in the woods for that hour or so before turning in for the night. We both also enjoy longer trips either backpacking or biking. It used to be on weekends, but now we have the freedom to go just about any time. Nature and retirement— what an unbeatable combination.
Williams found that we are disconnected from the natural world more and more and her book tells us all the reasons why just getting outdoors (for many of us on a trail), each and every day, is enough to make us happier, healthier, and more creative in our everyday lives.
To sum up, Williams makes a compelling and elegant case that we suffer from an “epidemic dislocation from the outdoors,” and it’s destructive to our mental and physical health. Nature not only makes us feel better, it also alters our biology, measurably reducing our fight-or-flight-response. The therapy is straightforward— to paraphrase John Muir “The Outdoors is Calling, and I MUST GO.” So, what are you waiting for: Just. Get. On. A. Trail.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative
By Florence Williams
Hardcover - $26.95
Jim Schmid has been State Trail Coordinator for South Carolina and Manager of The Florida Trail for the U.S. Forest Service. See his own trail travels at jimstrailresources.wordpress.com.