Nature and Neuroscience

To reconnect our heart, body and mind with the true rhythm of life we need moments in nature.  The rhythm of nature is unhurried, patient and unruffled by what the rest of the world is doing.  That is the rhythm and speed our biology is designed to move – more slowly. As we move into step with nature we can feel our body relax, our mind clear, and our heart open. Taking time to slow and reflect allows us to tune into our body and the environment surrounding it, and it does our overstressed brains a favour.  When we are gently guided to reconnect with nature our parasympathetic nervous system is calmed and toned, enabling our brain to work more effectively. 

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”  

Our innate connection with nature can be seen in the commonalities we share.  Patterns and cycles connect every component of our lives.  The rings of the trees depict the passage of time; our bodies have distinguishing lines and wrinkles too.  Nobbles and knots, twists and bends define the character of each tree and the elements it has been exposed to.  We also display unique characteristics, shaped by our prior experience, the push and pull of competing demands, significant events, and the environment in which we grow. Seasonal shifts in nature are paralleled by the seasons of our own lives – birth and generating buds, blooming and growing, withering and dying, pruning, and regrowth.   Even some terminology relating to brain development has its origins in nature. We know the human brain has the capacity to prune, to eliminate connections we are no longer need.  Our dendrites, the branching extensions of our nerve cells, take their name derived from the Greek ‘dendron’ meaning tree. 

You Are Home

Earth is our natural home and its health of our reefs, rivers, forests and grasslands is dependent on environmental factors.  We can see how air and water temperature, the ferocity of elements such as water, wind, and fire, can shape the life, growth and death of every element within the natural world.  Likewise, our body is our personal home and its health is reliant on us maintaining balance in the face of potential pollutants such as chronic stress, insomnia, compromised nutritional and digital diets, toxic thinking patterns, and dysfunctional relationships. 

“When you go out into the woods….you see all these different trees. You appreciate it.  You see why it is the way it is.  You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and it turned that way….The minute you get near humans, you lose all of that….That judging mind comes in.  And so I practice turning people into trees.  Which means appreciating them just the way they are.” 


Interconnectivity And Relationships

Given the intrinsic links between nature and people it is bewildering to witness the extent of our increasing disconnection and the resulting impact on our mental health.  Just as we are losing our ecological literacy, knowledge of plant and animal species around us, we often know little of those we live amongst. Increasingly we have become disconnected from our human nature and disconnected from Mother Nature.  We are more insulated from nature in our urban living environment and have become distanced from our inherent intuition and sensitivity to the cues signalling imbalance.  Interconnectivity and relationships are central to our wellbeing, not only with our fellow humans but also with our environment. 

Measurements of everything from stress hormones to heart rate to brain waves to protein markers indicate a profound positive shift when we spend time in green space. Our brain is capable of a qualitative difference in thinking after time in nature – these short doses of calm can sharpen and enhance performance.  Those who can see trees and grass have shown to recover faster in hospitals, perform better in schools, and even display less violent behaviour in their neighbourhood.  The evidence is clear that nature has the capacity to aid recovery from mental fatigue and enhance our ability to handle life stressors (frustration, disagreement, a difficult conversation) in a more positive and less reactive manner. To invest time in nature brings benefits not only for our brain chemistry but offers a social and economic return on investment. 

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

Given the pressure of time, and work and life commitments that lead us to sedentary and indoor bound pursuits, it makes sense to seek the neural benefits of time in nature through integrating this alongside existing demands. Taking meetings and coffee catch ups outdoors, getting outside (or even sitting near a window) when having lunch, taking your therapy session outdoors, or bringing a little bit of nature into your indoor space (adding plants, pictures of nature scenes, natural essential oils, sounds of nature).  In doing so we can meet the natural needs of our body, listen more closely and detect its cues, ground ourselves, and tune into our sensory experience.  We will reap the calming and restorative effects.    

Where Do You Connect With Nature?

Do you visit places that hold special meaning for you?  

What benefits do you see and feel when you spend time there?

Can you find opportunities to take other activities outdoors?

For me, there is the Walk for Mental Health at Albert Park on Sunday.  Next week, the continuation of our series of local Wednesday Wellbeing Walks will provide my neurons with a dose of nature and connection with my community. Perhaps I’ll see you there!