Living in hi-density urban environments is obviously good for the environment. If we all tried to live in the woods there would be no woods left. But are these urban environments good for us?
I’ve always felt restored and calmed by simply exposing myself to the natural environment. In addition there have been a number of studies that link amounts and types of green space to all kinds of physical and mental health benefits.
You have to be careful when interpreting the results of studies because there could other confounding factors; see my article Common Thinking Traps – Correlation and Causation. But I think there is enough accumulating evidence to draw a reasonable conclusion that natural environments may benefit us in some significant ways.
Here is a sampling of some of the studies.
Our brains identify and categorize natural settings almost instantly and far faster than artificial settings. Natural settings are clearly programmed into our brains in some fashion so it shouldn’t be surprising they have some beneficial effect on us.
A Dutch study found a significant correlation between the amount of green space within a 3 km radius and the number of reported health issues. This study was controlled for age, gender, education, income, and urbanity.
Several studies of hospital patients have shown reduced need for pain medicine and shorter recovery times for those with views of or access to natural scenes.
Study subjects were given difficult cognitive tests that required focused attention. Half of the subjects were then sent on a walk down a busy city street. The other half were sent on a walk in a secluded green space. All of them returned for more testing and those who walked in the green space performed far better on subsequent testing. They obviously were more restored by nature than those who had to navigate the city street. However, I would be curious as to a comparison between walking in nature and simply relaxing or meditating. In any case it is clear if you want to get the health benefit of a walk, it is far better to walk in a park than down a city street.
Workers in an office were exposed to low-level stress that increased heart rate. The subjects were then measured on how long it took them to calm down. Those workers who had an actual view of a natural setting through a window calmed down faster than those with a fake view (HDTV displaying natural setting) or no view at all. Interestingly, those workers with the fake view had a higher sense of well-being than those without just a blank wall. So evidently fake nature is better than nothing, but not as good as the real thing.
Some early experiments in using virtual reality to simulate nature seems to provide evidence that it can provide similar benefits to the real thing.
Why do we like to go to the zoo? Why are nature shows popular (although clearly not popular enough in my view)? Why do many people like to go camping? If you’ve ever been to a national park on a holiday you will know that they are very popular destinations. There is clearly something that draws us to wild animals and natural settings.
I find nature and natural settings extremely restorative and I head for them often when I’m feeling stressed or need a break. I would recommend that everyone give it a try. Of course this is just anecdotal evidence from my personal experience and doesn’t prove anything. However a number of studies and probably many which I’m unaware of are showing that there probably is indeed real beneficial physiological effects from being exposed to natural environments (even artificially created natural environments like urban parks and green spaces).
I also suspect that the more natural the better. Our brains are probably better tuned somehow to the patterns nature creates as opposed to overly planned landscapes. I certainly find natural forests more restorative than a sculpted park. However, there is evidence that viewing pictures, HDTV, and immersive virtual reality can also help.
So the bottom line seems to be to surround yourself with as much natural scenery as possible and expose yourself to natural environments as frequently as possible. I’m not aware of studies with indoor plants but I’ll bet they make a difference too. None of this can hurt and it might just help make you healthier and more relaxed.
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