The “Soft Fascination” of Nature

April 1, 2013, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

Research proves the calming effect of nature on the brain.A walk in the park can calm and restore you. This is something we take for granted in parks and recreation, because we have known it to be true ever since we started spending time in nature. But new research reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine now provides scientific proof that walking in nature and spending time under leafy shade trees causes electrochemical changes in the brain that can lead people to enter a highly beneficial state of “effortless attention.”

The UK researchers state with some justifiable academic stuffiness that “…happiness, or the presence of positive emotional mindsets, broadens an individual’s thought-action repertoire with positive benefits to physical and intellectual activities, and to social and psychological resources.” They assert that this mental benefit—happiness, if you will—occurs in individuals who are engaged in play, exploration, or other discovery-type activities. They note that until now, technology has not permitted scientists to study the cortical correlates of persons actively engaged within differing environments, but new developments in mobile electroencephalography (EEG), however, now allow exactly such measurements to be made.

In this recent study, a research team from Herriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, outfitted a group of test subjects with mobile electrodes fastened to their heads. The subjects then took programmed walks in three different environments—an urban shopping district, a park with a lush green environment, and a busy commercial zone. The results showed evidence of brain-wave activity indicating relaxed states—lower frustration, lower “engagement and arousal,” and higher meditative states—when moving into the green space, and just the reverse when moving out of it.

One of the most interesting aspects of this new research is how it conforms to a theory concerning the “soft fascination” of nature. In The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, researchers Rachel Kaplan and Steven Kaplan deconstruct what they call “the restorative experience.” This experience of being lifted out of a state of mental fatigue can be realized in a number of ways, but is most often accomplished by “getting away” or “escaping” from stressful environments and situations.

All of us can attest to times that we just want to get away, or spend time away from it all. However, research by the Kaplans and others shows that in the process of escaping from a state of mental fatigue, there are certain types of restorative experiences that seem to transcend others and produce multiple benefits, not just the benefit of escape from stress alone. One of these states is the “fascination” that occurs when a person is immersed in nature. Entering this state of effortless attention can occur in a variety of ways—walking in the woods, hiking along a trail in a totally natural environment, or sitting by a stream watching water tumble over rocks. It seems that the experience of being in nature is transformative in and of itself—it can cause a person’s emotional state to be uplifted and mental balance to be restored. Being in nature is truly refreshing in a very deep, meaningful way.

Astute observers of the human condition have been cataloguing the things that fascinate us for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. However, the soft fascination of nature, according to the Kaplans, is a mental state produced by full engagement in the pleasurable context of nature. When you enter a green space of natural light and shadows containing the colors of nature, you can also enter a particularly reflective mode at the same time in which you are able to comprehend more than one thing at a time, a state in which stresses and pressures are reduced. You are able to enjoy multiple stimuli and perceptions even while thinking about other things. All in all, being in nature produces a fully restorative experience.

The Kaplans’ research was largely based on observations of people and stimuli, similar to other research since then. Other studies, as mentioned in a recent New York Times article about the Herriot-Watt University study have shown the measurable and provable benefits of living near parks and green spaces. They have also chronicled how kids do better on cognitive tests after spending time in nature, and how certain biochemical changes occur in a person’s saliva after they spend time outdoors. However, this new study is one of the first to make real-time measurements of brain activity that occurs while people are being bombarded by the stimuli of a busy commercial street or a shopping district, and the very different brain-activity patterns that result from the restorative effects of walking outdoors in nature.

It is extremely interesting to note that this new research from Herriot-Watt University, which used advanced technology to measure brain waves through mobile EEGs, shows what we have intuitively known for generations—that a walk in the park may be the most beneficial thing you can do for your mental and physical health.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation.