The Healing Power of Nature
The Healing Power of Nature
Just in case you missed it, the January 2016 edition of National Geographic is one worth searching out. Particularly for its headline article titled This is Your Brain on Nature. In this article I was first introduced to the theory of Attention Restoration Therapy, or ART. What caught my attention in this article was not the picture of the naked engineer swinging from a tree, nor the two Swedes ice-bathing in a frozen lake near Stockholm in February. What did catch my attention was some research performed by David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist. His research found that people who engaged in three days of ART performed 50% better on creative problem solving assessments. Fifty percent is a huge number in the world of medical outcomes, significant to say the least.
Imagine how having a 50% increase in your creative thinking skills would effect your daily life. Would this translate into a greater chance of success and achievement ultimately leading to a higher degree of personal satisfaction, fulfillment, and overall happiness? Maybe it would. As a physician and a father, I for one would gladly welcome any improvement in my creative problem solving skills.
The benefits of ART are not limited only to problem solving skills. Those researching this new therapy have described additional benefits. ART appears to have a very beneficial effect on stress levels. One small study involving 84 subjects measured the anti-stress effects of 15 minutes of ART. What they found was astounding: after only 15 minutes of ART there was a 16% drop in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a 2% drop in blood pressure, and a 4% decrease in heart rate.
So what is this health and happiness promoting therapy that involves no risk of adverse drug reaction, no supplements or medications, and no adherence to the dreaded healthy dietary change?
The answer is exposure to nature. ART could loosely be described as spending some time outdoors. Truthfully speaking, a person doesnt really even need to be in the outdoors to receive some of the benefits of ART. Looking at pictures of nature, or even immersing oneself in a virtual reality nature scene can bestow some of the healthy and reinvigorating effects. While the exact neurochemical and physiological mechanisms of Attention Restoration Therapy are still being investigated, some hypotheses have been put forth to try and explain how it works. The most prominent of these ideas has to do with attention. More specifically it has to do with two different types of attention, directed attention and passive attention aka soft fascination.
Directed attention requires maintaining focus for an extended period of time, during which considerable effort must be put forth to ignore the onslaught of distractions. Imagine sitting at your desk trying to work on a difficult project while your cell phone ring, your email chirps the arrival of yet another email from Pottery Barn Teen, and your office mates are knocking on your door every three minutes to ask yet another quick question.
Soft fascination on the other hand does not require a high degree of focus, but instead involves effortless reflection. The idea behind ART is that by engaging soft fascination in an over-worked, over-stressed brain a sort of overload recovery can be initiated. Indeed, researchers have found that being immersed in nature, or even viewing pictures of nature can drastically change which part of the brain are being stimulated. Viewing picture of cityscapes can invigorate the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with anxiety and fear, while viewing nature scenes activates the anterior cingulate and the insula, which is associated with empathy and altruism.
The healing power of nature, aka the vix medicatrix naturae, is a concept that is incorporated into many different parts of naturopathic medicine from diets, to supplements, to mind-body medicine. These recently found abilities of Attention Restoration Therapy to improve a persons health remind us that not all medicines come in a bottle. The healing power of nature may be strongest when we simply remember to take the time to include nature in our lives.
Article written by Dr. Jonathan Psenka