The Science and Experience of Connecting with Nature
What is Nature-Connection?
Kat Houghton PhD, CPC
The term “nature connection” is used to describe a variety of practices designed to help modern, Western, humans feel more connected to the natural world, no small feat in an age when the EPA reports we spend 97% of our time indoors. The term is a misnomer as it implies that humans and nature are separate and we need to take steps to form a connection, which is exactly the opposite message at the heart of the nature connection practices.
These practices come from the basic premise that humans are just as much a part of nature as snails, wind and volcanoes but that we Westerners have “forgotten” this and live in an illusion of separation. Nature connection practices at their core are about helping us realize that we are nature and rest, gently, into our place in the more-than-human world.
The English word “nature” has its roots in the Latin natura, “course of things; natural character, constitution, quality” and natus, “born” and in the 13th century was recorded to mean, “restorative powers of the body; powers of growth”. It wasn’t until the 1660s in England that we see the definition, “the material world beyond civilization or society; an original, wild, undomesticated condition” which resembles how we Westerners tend to conceptualize “the natural world” today (1).
Most indigenous languages do not have a word for “nature” and do not conceptualize nature as separate from the people. For example, the Māori people, native to the land we now call New Zealand, use the word whenuato mean both land and placenta (2) an association which winds its way back to their cosmology, their worldview which informs their understanding of who they are and how to be in the world.
Robin Wall Kimmer, an American botanist and member of the Potawatomi nation points out that the separation from nature concept is embedded in the English language’s use of pronouns. We use the same pronoun “it” to refer to a living pine tree and a moose as we do an inanimate table and car. In her native language, personhood is extended to all living things (including the stone people, the wind, the sun, etc.) and these “things”, as we call them, are generally described by verbs, not nouns. She is slowly relearning the Potawatomi language after her Grandfather was taken to a boarding school that forced him to only speak English.
Kimmer explains, “I think the most profound act of linguistic imperialism was the replacement of a language of animacy with one of objectification of nature, which renders the beloved land as lifeless object, the forest as board feet of timber. Because we speak and live with this language every day, our minds have also been colonized by this notion that the nonhuman living world and the world of inanimate objects have equal status. Bulldozers, buttons, berries, and butterflies are all referred to as it, as things, whether they are inanimate industrial products or living beings.”
It is that wild, undomesticated, world beyond civilization identified by the English in the 1660s to which we now long to return. That longing is fueling the modern development of the nature connection field and likely, in part, the modern mental health crises we face where 18% of adults are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, 8% with a form of depression, 3.5% with PTSD. 18 million adults in the US battle a substance abuse disorder, and around 130 people complete suicide each day, the 12th leading cause of death in the US.
The longing to return to the undomesticated world and find that wild part of ourselves lies at the core of nature connection practices which on the surface look many different ways. Gardening may be considered a nature connection practice if done with that intention. Some people engage in learning the names of trees and plants in their bioregion or learn to identify bird song by ear. There are various mindfulness practices done outdoors designed to help us be present with the comings and goings of natural world rather than letting our technologically, over-stimulated minds run rampant. Some crave a more intense immersion, a four-day, four-night wilderness quest where they fast, alone in a remote area.
However you do it, the intention is to remember that we humans are not separate from the rest of Life, that we are in relationship with all the rest of it.
Why do we need it?
There are no studies that can tie the current mental health crisis to lack of nature connection – there are too many other factors to take into account. But there is a growing body of research that tells us that we are healthier and happier when we spend time out of doors in a way that encourages us to be present with the more-than-human world.
There is also a strong sentiment in the environmental protection field that, as Wendell Berry says, ““People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.” Hence the call for getting to know the world, the ecosystems that support all life, and falling in love with them as a way to ensure their protection.
What does the science say about nature-connection?
Early (1984) research into the impacts of natural environments on human health looked at people in hospital beds who could see a window to a tree and those that had a window to a brick wall. Patients with the green view recovered and went home more quickly, needed less pain medication and were described by nurses as having better attitudes (3). Similarly, a 1981 study of a Michigan prison found that prisoners with a view of the rolling farmland had fewer sick call visits than those with a view of the barren courtyard (4).
Since then these window studies have gone on the show that people with greener views tend toward greater productivity, less job stress, better grades, less aggression, are more able to resist distractions and delay gratification. A series of studies in a Chicago inner city housing development found a significant relationship between the amount of greenery available and lower levels of homicides, assaults, thefts and assaults. Moreover, those living in building with more greenery were more apt to be concerned with helping their neighbors, had stronger feelings of belonging and engaged in more social activities with each other (5).
Place matters. Our species has evolved amongst the savannah’s, forests and coastlines of the world. It’s where we feel at home. Urbanization is a relatively new phenomena in the history of our species. We are not designed to live in these environments. Listening to bird song and water sounds (live or recorded) has consistently show improvements in both mood and alertness whereas urban noise decreases mood and alertness and increases stress levels (6).
There is a particular practice that has received a huge amount of research attention particularly in Japan and Korea that here in the West, we call Forest Bathing. The Japanese word is shinrin yoku, a term coined by the government in 1982 for a method derived from ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices. Shinrin yoku has become a standard method of preventative medicine in Japan and Korea. There are around 50 designated “forest therapy” trails in the country and dozens of medical doctors certified in forest medicine. At this point nearly a quarter of the entire population of Japan has participated in some form of forest bathing (7).
Many research studies have shown the physical and mental health benefits of forest bathing in comparison to taking a similar walk in an urban environment. One such study in 2004 found forest bathing to create a 12% drop in stress hormone levels, 7% drop in sympathetic nerve activity, 1.4% decrease in blood pressure and a 6% decrease in heart rate. Additionally, participants reported better mood and less stress (8).
Another study took a group of middle-aged Tokyo businessmen out into the woods for three days. They spent a couple of hours each morning hiking. Tests before and after showed that their levels of natural killer cells (which protect us from various diseases) had increased by a whopping 40%. This huge increase lasted for another 7 days. A month later it was still 15% higher than when they started. The group that walked in the urban setting showed no increase in natural killer cell levels. These results have been replicated numerous times with men and women of various ages and on various forest therapy trails. Interestingly, a walk in a city park did produce an increase in natural killer cells just not as dramatic an increase as being out in the woods.
These studies are continuing and homing in on more specifics such as how much nature time we need and how frequently and the role played by various components, including phytochemical (chemicals emitted by plants) and ambient sound types.
How do I do it?
Finding your connection to the natural world is more about what we are not doing, not about doing another thing.
Our natural state is to be in concert with the more-than-human-world. We are already there but we tend to be so busy with the comings and goings of the human created world that we don’t notice.
No matter where you are right now you can become aware of breath going into your lungs and remember that is the same air circulating around the globe. Remember that the oxygen in that air, that is vital to your existence, was generated by leaves, photosynthesizing the carbon dioxide us mammals keep breathing out.
Go find a glass of water. As you take some into your mouth be aware that is the same water that has been rain, rushed along in a creek, evaporated into clouds and being part of the vast subterranean ocean below our feet. As you drink the water there is an exchange of molecules and information with your body. We are made of water.
Step outside and open up your ears. Even in a busy urban environment there are the sounds of nature, the wind in the tress, birds, water moving. Listen. There’s no need to name or identify what you hear, just be aware of it, reach out to it with your attention. What do you feel on your skin? The wind touching you? The warmth of the sun? Notice how you are always part of the wider world.
Doing these simple practices daily will help you feel more connected. If you would like a deeper dive or to work with guides who can help, please be in touch.
- Etymological Dictionary Online
- “View through a window may influence recovery,”, Science, vol. 224 no. 4647 (1984) pp:224-25
- “A prison environment’s effect on health care service demands”, Journal of Environmental Systems, vol. 11 (1981), pp: 17-34.
- Kuo “Coping with Poverty: Impacts of Environment and Attention in the inner city” Environment & Behavior, vol. 33, no. 1 (2001) pp5-34; Kuo & Sullivan, “Aggression and violence in the inner city: effect of environment via mental fatigue,” Environment & Behavior, Special Issue, vol. 33 no. 4 (2001) pp 543 – 71; Kuo & Sullivan “Environment and crime in the inner city: Does vegetation reduce crime?” Environment & Behavior, vol. 33, no. 3 (198), pp. 823-51.
- The Nature Fix by Florence
- ““Preventative medical effects of nature therapy” (2011) Japanese Journal of Hygiene https://www.marlboroughforestry.org.nz/mfia/docs/naturaltherapy.pdf
- “Science of natural Therapy”, Miyazaki (2008) https://www.marlboroughforestry.org.nz/mfia/docs/naturaltherapy.pdf