Menas Kafatos, Ph.D.
Jay Kumar, Ph.D.
The information torrent bombards everyone, but the young are most vulnerable to its powerful effects, as they are the most impressionable. Here's an alarming fact. Research published in the journal Pediatrics documented that American kids on average spend more time in front of a TV or computer screen (1,023 hours per year) than they do learning in school (900 hours per year). Even compared to a generation ago, when nearly 75 percent of children played outside, nowadays roughly 25 percent of kids spend time outdoors, and even when they do it's on average only 30 minutes per week. The situation has become so dire that researcher and author Louv has appropriately coined the term "Nature Deficit Disorder" to capture the seriousness of the problem. It is a curious sign of our times that even as young people are more adept in using Facebook, Twitter and the Internet than their parents or older relatives, they are also becoming more dependent on that very same technology to the point of social isolation.
In our first post, we expressed the notion that our modern lifestyle's increased dependence on technology correlates with increased levels of brain fatigue. Not only have we become disconnected from each other, our over-connected and technologically driven culture has led us being disconnected from nature!
While religion and spirituality have always extolled the glory and healing potential of nature, science, specifically brain science and principles from quantum theory, is preaching the same message -- humans need time in nature for enduring health and ultimate happiness. It is also the case that greater awareness of the vulnerability of the Earth's biosphere to humanly-induced global changes, is making scientists and lay persons to be more mindful of the incredible balance and benefits that nature affords humans and, in fact, all species. As we celebrate the arrival of spring, what better opportunity to get back out and enjoy the many powerful and healing benefits nature abundantly provides.
Let's face it: The human brain never evolved to be sitting in front of a computer in a windowless office nine hours a day. Do you ever wonder why spas, yoga studios, and online meditation videos often play sounds of chirping birds, ocean waves, or soothing rain? It connects to the idea that humans evolved in nature and, according to the theory of biophilia or nature-connectedness, our brain is genetically wired to thrive when gazing at the sunset, hearing the sound of wind through trees, or feeling the warm touch of the sun on our skin. The fact that sounds of ocean waves induce states of relaxation attest to our oneness with Earth itself and to the seas in particular, where all life began.
So how exactly does nature heal? The answer resides in our brain and relates again to the concept known as the relaxation response, a mechanism wired into our biology to cope with stress. In an experiment conducted and published in South Korea, participants were shown images of the outdoors. Areas of the brain, known as the insula and anterior cingulate, that govern altruism, contentment, and an overall sense of peace, flashed with activity.
There's no doubt about it! We are intimately intertwined with nature. This notion is even supported from the revolutionary field of quantum theory. It is here that the universal principles of complementarity and recursion across different scales give us a hint that we as humans are intimately connected to nature at all levels. Concepts such as quantum non-locality and entanglement, once thought only to occur at the micro-level, are now features that permeate all levels of nature and powerfully attest to the interconnected world in which we live.
The immense healing benefits of nature accrue to children as well as adults. In our many years of teaching at university, we sadly see far too many of our students feeling overwhelmed by stress, anxiety and agitation. In a study of children diagnosed with ADHD at the University of Illinois, children with ADHD were divided into three randomized groups. One group was led on a 20-minute walk in a park, another in a residential neighborhood and the third group down a busy urban street. After each walk, all children were given the same cognitive test to measure memory, focus and concentration.
You can probably guess which group performed best on the test? That's right, the children who had walked in the park. Even more intriguing is that the children were told not to take any prescription medication for their ADHD on the day of the experiment. The study showed that a "dose of nature" worked just as well, if not better, than a dose of medication. The findings, later presented in a 2004 article of the American Journal of Public Health, suggest that our environment -- for better or worse -- affects our health and happiness.
But can a short walk in the park truly provide scientifically measurable benefits to a healthy adult? According to a fascinating 2013 study conducted at the University of Edinburgh and documented by the National Institutes of Health the answer is yes! Just as in the study with children with ADHD, adults were sent on a 30-minute walk in three distinct Edinburgh neighborhoods. Each participant strolled for an equal amount of time through the historic town shopping center, through a large park and lastly along a busy urban thoroughfare.
On their walk, each participant wore a portable wireless neural-imaging headset that mapped his or her brain waves in real-time. The results were clear. Time spent walking in the park induced a calming, meditative state in the brain waves of participants compared to when the brain was exposed to more urban settings. The next time you feel fatigue or stress, one quick -- and free -- solution is to spend time in nature.
So all of this doesn't require ditching Los Angeles or London for Maui. Research suggests that even a short 10-15 minute walk in the park during one's lunch break, touching -- hugging is even better -- a tree on your walk to the office, or "stopping to smell the roses" are all beneficial. Consider the outdoors as your free spa. A few minutes outdoors can place your brain into a deeply relaxed and calm state, as if you'd just come home from a weekend at a five-star health resort. Nature, it turns out, is your brain's best friend! And it is not surprising that more and more people seek the dual advantage of living in comfortable urban environments but also not disconnected from nature, whether that means living close to a park, having a second home in the mountains or by the sea and of course taking nice vacations in beautiful parts of the Earth.
Think of it this way -- nature never came with a built-in Wi-Fi signal, but you're guaranteed to have a strong connection! (Click to Tweet)
Menas C. Kafatos, is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics, at Chapman University. He is a quantum physicist, cosmologist, and climate change researcher and works extensively on consciousness. He holds seminars and workshops for individuals and corporations on the natural laws that apply everywhere for well-being and success. His doctoral thesis advisor was the renown M.I.T. professor Philip Morrison who studied under J. Robert Oppenheimer. He has authored 300+ articles, is author or editor of 15 books, including "The Conscious Universe" (Springer) with Robert Nadeau, and is co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, "Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles" (Harmony). You can learn more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menas_Kafatos and follow him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/menas.kafatos Twitter: @mckafatos and LinkedIn: Menas Kafatos
Jay Kumar holds a Ph.D. in cognitive science and religious studies and is the co-founder of the Applied Brain Science Research Institute (ABSRI). He expertly counsels organizations and businesses on harnessing the art and science of happiness for both short- and long-term success. In addition to consulting businesses and individuals, he stays at the forefront of brain research as a university professor. His e-book Five Secrets to Achieving Authentic Health Happiness is available on Amazon.com. You can learn more at www.DrJayKumar.com and follow him on Twitter @docjaykumar