“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity ...”
- John Muir
In his 1901 collection of essays, "Our National Parks," John Muir set out “to show forth the beauty, grandeur, and all-embracing usefulness” of wild places. He championed not only the preservation of wilderness areas but also the spiritual and restorative effects they had on the souls of weary city dwellers.
One might find it laughable today that turn-of-the-century Americans sought pastoral refuge from their “over-civilized” lives. However, in the context of smoke-spewing factories that enveloped the industrialized East, and the boomtowns of the West, popping up without much consideration for law, order or sanitation, Victorian-era urbanites may have needed respite as badly as the tired, nerve-shaken, over-digitized civilizations of today.
While our time as an indoor species has been relatively short (geologically speaking), scientists are studying whether we are hardwired to thrive in organic environments, and what the effects might be if we continue to ignore primordial impulses to be outside, in what some debate, is our natural habitat.
We evolved in tandem with the rest of the biological world, and as Richard Louv, the foremost proponent of nature-as-a-tonic puts it, many of us are suffering from “nature-deficit disorder.”
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, children spend more than 7.5 hours daily in front of some form of screen, and only 1 in 3 children are physically active every day.
Detergent company Persil ruffled feathers by suggesting that prison inmates spend more time outside than today’s youth (and of course, advocated kids getting dirty).
Adults don’t fare much better, a Harvard School of Public Health study found, with only about 5 percent of their day spent outdoors. Many cite time constraints and distance from green spaces as hurdles to getting outside on a regular basis. The void left by this absence of nature in our daily lives is compounded by an onslaught of competing, often digital, stimuli.
There are varying schools of thought as to whether simply being in nature is important, or if the perceived positive effects have more correlation to what we do (or don’t do) while we’re there.
In his 1890 book, "The Principles of Psychology," William James calls attention “taking possession by the mind” and notes that “without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.” With so many ways to connect in the digital era, keeping up with it all has given birth to a breed of “chronic multitaskers,” who, Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass explains, “show an enormous range of deficits.”
“They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking,” he says. Responding to work emails, digesting political news and getting up to speed on the latest memes demands attention, and even top-level multitaskers only have so much. In the attention economy, your eyes and ears are valuable.
“Attention is our currency, and it’s precious,” writes Florence Williams, author of "The Nature Fix".
Unbridled use of technology can “hijack” our minds, Tristan Harris of advocacy group Time Well Spent warns. If the first thing you see in the morning is a menu of “all the things I’ve missed since yesterday,” he says, your relationship to your phone can frame your entire day.
Harris equates incessant phone checking to playing a slot machine, an addictive form of variable reward. Those trying to gauge phone checking have come up with figures that range from 80 to 150 times a day for the average user. If attention truly is a currency, it seems that all of the bells, whistles and alerts of the smartphone era are complicit in a mental bank heist.
In Richard Louv’s "Last Child in the Woods," educator Elaine Brooks describes modern life as “being chased.” Whether by a lion or an inbox deluge, this constant requirement to react takes a toll on humans. Her remedy to the adrenal overload involves resting in a meditative, natural space — much like our ancestors might have done after a brush with the business end of a toothy predator.
Offering refuge from our devices and daily obligations isn’t the only benefit of spending time outdoors, some argue. The mere act of being in nature offers rewards of health and happiness that are a little harder to quantify.
The so-called “awe factor” of admiring beautiful scenery, or discovery of a layered soundscape of birds, rustling trees or flowing water are thought to improve creativity and lower anxiety. Psychologist A.H. Maslow (most famous for his hierarchy of needs) suggests that “anxiety kills curiosity and exploration,” and “that they are mutually incompatible, especially when anxiety is extreme.”
Organic exploration of the natural realm, in addition to freedom from demanding manmade visual and audio pollution offers individuals the time and space to unwind.
“Our sensitivity to nature, and our humility within it, are essential to our physical and spiritual survival,” posits Louv. Something as simple as holding soil in your hand or breathing fragrant forest air is thought to improve health and mental well-being.
Japanese researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki is studying the connection between nature immersion (specifically forest bathing) and reduced levels of stress. The findings are promising for those with the bandwidth to make it out to a park or preserve.
Carving out time to get outside is still the biggest challenge for most adults, and an entire industry has sprung up around prescribing outdoor activity.
Ecotherapy, as it’s known, assigns “patients” outdoor tasks like going for a walk in a park or meditating by a lake.
Experts have been recommending exercise and fresh air since the time of tuberculosis, though, ecotherapists have found busy professionals are less likely to act on vague advice than an actual “prescription” to head to a park and engage in a specific activity.
Ecotherapy has its detractors, however, and “nature-deficit disorder” is not a widely recognized psychological condition. Some discredit the claims of improved mental state in nature as a placebo effect and tie the physical benefits to the activity level of individuals rather than the location of their activity.
While outdoor recreation may not be a true replacement for long-established medical care, many are embracing it as another tool in the wellness arsenal.
Striking a balance between mind, body and nature may be the key to true connectedness. Author Bill Plotkin reminds us that we “were born to occupy a particular place in nature — a place in the earth community, not just in a human society.”
Technology has made it easier than ever to connect with humanity, but for many, has become a barrier to the rest of the natural world. We feel closest to nature when we recognize that we’re part of nature and only a single component of a greater whole.
To return to the wisdom of Muir, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
If we are going to live in a truly interconnected world, we must factor in our role as biological creatures, and find harmony between our digital and physical realms.
Perhaps we can harness the power of technology to reconnect with nature — to be inspired and empowered to explore our entire habitat, and occasionally leave our phones behind.