'The Nature' Fix by Florence Williams
Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.
"I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least ¾ and it is commonly more than that ¾ sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly entanglements."
— Henry David Thoreau, "Walking"
Review by Chris Hartman
Photos by Kate Orne
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Available at Amazon
The emotional benefits of nature, to most of us, are hard to deny. A sunny, summer afternoon spent in solitude is a pleasure to be savored. The majestic view from the top of a mountain is invigorating and rapturous. And canoeing down a placid backwoods stream is to engage in a leisurely and restorative pastime enjoyed by countless nature lovers over the centuries. It's visceral; you just feel better when you're outside in nature.
But scientifically proven physiological and psychological benefits of natural environments? That's another matter entirely, but one that Florence Williams, in The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, has ably managed to reveal. Williams, a fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and a visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has taken the reader on a world tour; from Japan, with their enthusiastic practice of shinrin yoku, or "forest bathing," to the "healing forests" of South Korea, to the hills of Moab in Utah, to the bucolic climes of Finland and Scotland, to determine statistically how the environment often dramatically improves our mental and physical well-being.
Williams herself had become seriously depressed following her family's move from Colorado to Washington, D.C., and, upon confessing this to her doctor, was immediately prescribed an anti-depressant. She was to later discover that one in four middle-aged American women takes or has taken such pharmaceuticals for depression. Williams' struggles with noise from low-flying planes, traffic, and Washington D.C.'s suburban landscaping gadgets, lend a personal, if occasionally humorous, touch to some of the book's more disturbing revelations: that respectively, South Korea and Japan have the first and third highest suicide rates in the world, attributed primarily to work-related stress.
In seeking a more nature-based solution to such dire circumstances, Williams cites the concept of "biophilia" — as explicated by Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson: "the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms," that our brains respond powerfully and innately to natural stimuli. "Phytoncides," also known as "aromatic volatile substances," are oils emitted by evergreens, and many other trees. Qing Li, a Tokyo immunologist, wondered if NK (natural killer immune) cells were boosted by these phytoncides. In one of Li's tests, a sample of middle-aged Tokyo businessmen who hiked for three days in the woods had their NK cells increase by 40% — which lasted for seven days. Not only that, but blood pressure and pulse rates also saw marked decreases.
David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, explained to Williams that in any given environment, the brain engages three main networks: the "executive network" (intellect, task-focusing); "spatial" (orientation); and "default" (creativity). In light of this, a theory Williams suggests is that nature acts as a sort of "smart pill" that sparks up the default network and allows the executive network to rest and recharge. And Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who Williams quotes liberally throughout, wrote that viewing nature "employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and invigoration to the whole system."
Traveling in Scotland, Williams highlights the writings of William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Jane Austen on the restorative effects of solvitur ambulando (in walking it will be solved). And Glaswegian James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, attributed that monumental concept to a stroll he took: "It was in the Green of Glasgow… when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum… I had not walked further than the Golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind."
Whether it be through what University of Michigan environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan refer to as "soft fascination," (viewing pictures of nature to improve cognitive powers in the brain), or Texas A&M university architecture professor Roger Ulrich's Stress-Reduction Theory (SRT), nature is demonstrated to make us both happier and smarter. However, Williams' later participation in an experiment to see if virtual reality could replicate the calming effects of a natural environment was a dismal failure, and made her ill besides.
In Finland, a verdant country whose landscape is dominated by woods and lakes, researcher Kalevi Korpela sought to see what made people terve, or healthy. In one of his experiments, showing a traumatic video about woodshop accidents followed by one about nature to a group of 120 students "showed a decrease in subjects' heart rates, facial muscle tension… lower blood pressure, lower circulating cortisol and improved mood after 15-20 minutes."
Williams summarizes that the overarching theme of this book is that the benefits of nature work along a "dose curve." In that vein, she calls the "nature pyramid" created by Tim Beatley of the University of Virginia, a "genius idea." As with food pyramids, it discusses recommended allowances of nature arranged in a pyramid, from daily nature interactions that help us distress, find focus and lighten mental fatigue (on the bottom), to weekly outings to parks and waterways, to monthly excursions to forests or other natural areas, to the pinnacle: intense multi-day bursts of nature that can, in Williams' words, "rearrange our very core, catalyzing our hopes and dreams, filling us with awe and human connection, and offering a reassurance of our place in the universe." Taken to its basic essence, one is encouraged to "Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe."