The scientific case for communing with nature
Author Joe Keohane Illustration Peter Horvath
I’ve never been a great one for nature. Where naturalists see majestic heights, I see things to fall off of en route to a hilarious slapstick demise. Where they thrill at a glimpse of fauna in its natural habitat, I tend to assume that anything larger than a pigeon is actively planning to harm me. I’m a city creature: I get my majesty, serenity and wildlife from the skyline, planned parks and subway, respectively.
So why, upon encountering the Five Sisters of Kintail mountains in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, did I suddenly feel that I had been made … whole?
We were driving west on the A87, heading from Inverness to the Isle of Skye. On the way, the terrain mostly looked like what you think of when you think of Scotland, until all of a sudden it looked like what you think of when you think of Mars: red-brown and craggy, with the Sisters rising up so steeply across a riverbed to my left that I couldn’t see their peaks from the car. They stood like old cathedrals, vast and somber. Stop to listen and you could almost hear the organ sounding.
So I stopped to listen. And I had the uncanny sense that some deep primordial need I wasn’t aware of was being satisfied. I felt as though everything—myself included—was being slowed and sharpened in view of this sprawling, ragged beauty. I felt as though I was being mended somehow just by standing there, phone dead, car off, all quiet but the wind.
As it happens, the above notion is not based in some hippie-ish conversion to New Age thinking, or even, as I suspected, a quickening slide into madness, but rather in two emerging fields of neuroscientific inquiry, both having to do with what today’s ceaseless bombardment of stimuli does to the human brain.
“If you’re one of these people who never takes the day off, or breaks during the day,” says McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, it’s critical that you “take a vacation where you’re not connected—a week or two without hyperstimulation.”
Certainly, I was a prime candidate. I had just come off a long, intense, burnout-level stretch at work with all the usual trappings: long hours and missed sleep; 3 a.m. email checks and weird muscle aches; compulsive chatting and texting. Even by the standards of our wound-up, workaholic culture, I was fried. And according to Levitin, author of the recent best-seller The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, I was not alone.
“We’ve created more information in the last five years than in all of human history before it, and it’s coming at us all the time,” Levitin says. And the brain is notoriously bad at coping with the barrage, rewarding us with a shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine each time we turn our attention to something new, regardless of what it is. “In a sense, we get addicted to the hyperstimulation,” he says, and we overload the brain’s processing capacity. This can lead to poor cognitive function and heightened levels of adrenaline and cortisol.
“It does physical damage,” adds Andrew Smart, a research scientist who wrote the book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. “All these stress hormones are released, and it hardens your arteries just like smoking cigarettes does.”
The more overstimulation is studied, the more Levitin’s prescription of “rest, daydream, nap” is becoming a matter of consensus. According to Smart, “daydreaming is your brain processing emotions and experiences and consolidating them and allowing you to integrate those experiences into your identity or your sense of self. If you’re constantly suppressing that function, you’ll lose the ability to reflect and get in touch with yourself.”
Of course, unplugging can be done anywhere. But when you do it in nature, the benefits are even more significant. “It’s something scientists have just begun to notice, and we don’t know why, but immersing yourself in nature is tremendously restorative, and it enhances creativity and energy,” Levitin says, pointing to recent research that shows that being in nature, or in one case just looking at a photo of a tree, can enhance brain function and the sense of well-being. In recent years, a small number of researchers have also found that people who experience awe report a sensation of time slowing, and as a result they feel less impatient and generally more satisfied with their lives.
Alas, the Highlands trip, rich in quiet awe, ended. As with all my vacations, I pledged to hold fast to the perspective I’d gained from it, and as with all my vacations, I gradually failed, snowed under by workaday demands. But I’d hit upon something, and ever since, I’ve deliberately sought out those places that offer the trifecta of awe, nature and bad cell reception. Not long ago I spent a week in Big Sur, where, among other stupendous accomplishments, I stared at a big tree for a very long time, with my phone dead as a brick in a cabin nearby. “What a tree,” I may have thought, if I was thinking anything at all.