In her early years as a researcher, Ming Kuo came across a seemingly puzzling phenomena – The alarming rates of animal deaths in zoos. Researchers had found that most of the captured animals were unable to thrive despite being given basic food, safety and shelter. It turned out that these provisions did not matter significantly unless the animals were placed in their natural habitats (or at least a simulation of it). The finding led to major redesign of zoos, to provide what is known as ‘enriched environments’, and studies show that such environments seem fundamental to the physical and psychological well-being of the animal.
Now, considering our migration from savannas to cities being just an evolutionary blink of time, how has the transition impacted us? By the year 2050, more than 70% of the world’s population are expected to live in cities. However, are we going to feel as trapped as a chimp in a cage? Or, has our culture transcended the notion of a habitat?
We need greener pastures
As usual, the story is complicated. Another strand of Kuo’s research was investigating negative impacts of urban environment in people. For this study, she came across a row of 10 storey apartments in Chicago, called the Robert Taylor Homes. These were originally designed to have greenery around the apartments, but the cost of maintaining the grass led most builders to pave up the area using asphalt. Only a few apartments still had some patch of green surrounding them. Kuo thus had naturally available contrast cases. Long story short, she found social breakdown more prevalent among people who did not have access to green spaces.* They were more likely to engage in aggressive behaviours, and be irritable. In other words, mere exposure to greenery seemed to affect people in positive ways, even if they were not consciously attending to their surroundings. One explanation of this phenomena comes from what is known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART). The theory, developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s posits that exposure to Nature can reduce mental fatigue, since natural environments are full of ‘soft fascinations’ (floating clouds, rustling leaves, textured bark and so on). These encounters help restore attentive resources, thereby allowing people to pay more attention (and therefore more empathy) towards their social surroundings.
Interesting evidence comes from other quarters as well. A group of researchers from Stanford found that spending time in natural surroundings reduces a “maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.” In simpler terms, it can shrink our egos, which usually puts us in the centre of the universe (thereby amplifying negative emotions associated with us). Awe or fascination in the face of large banyan tree can rightly displace that ego (mostly running on social media steroids), and allow for healthier emotions to form. This is also the reason that some people prone to depression might even find immersive experiences in Nature as disorienting, since it can instantly shift focus of one’s attention (from inward to outward). Yet, astonishingly even if they feel anxious during the encounter, they report feeling less depressed after the experience.
If you’re sad, dig deeper
The link between mental health and Nature rich surroundings has been established through a range of studies. One research group in London found that pharmacies in the tree dense neighbourhoods prescribed significantly less anti-depressants in that area, i.e people tend to have lesser issues of depression when living in close proximity to green areas. Another study showed that prisoners tending to gardens as part of service were more likely to be helpful and high-spirited, and thus had a better chance of parole. Now, one might say this all just feel-good psychology; Sure, it is nice to take a walk in the park, but is there anything beyond that? Turns out, there is. There are measurable physiological responses to Nature exposure in the form of lower blood-pressure, a boost in the immune system through production of natural killer cells, and release of Serotonin (a chemical related to the alleviation of mood). The last effect is intriguing, because the effect seems to stem from interaction with soil bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae. Recent research in exploring the human microbiome and its interaction with the environment might find some interesting links here. People who have consumed psilocybin ( the psychedelic drug found in some 200 species of mushrooms) often report a sense of ‘oneness’ with their Natural surroundings. Could such cosmic interplay of chemicals be a form of Nature communication that we have so effectively muted in our urban lives? in that case, there hasn’t been a more urgent time to be a good listener. Could the positive effects associated with Nature exposure simply be a evolutionary reminder of the fact that Nature remains our first home? Biologist E.O Wilson termed the phenomena as Biophilia and argued that we are genetically predisposed to feel affection towards other living beings and natural surroundings, since our lives depended on intimate knowledge of the environment. Experiencing these ancient interconnections maybe the only way to address the culture of apathy and isolation. Now, like an amnesic we can’t quite figure why does the fragrance of moist Earth uplift our senses, or why digging away at a community garden can seem more fulfilling than buying groceries at a supermarket. Yet, the body remembers. Shouldn’t we allow it to lead the way?
*There is a socio-economic angle to access of green spaces as well, since these are associated with affluent areas. Going with the argument that exposure to Nature is fundamental for mental well-being (rather than an idle luxury), city planning must account for access to green spaces, especially in poverty prone areas. Such spaces also act as social binders, thus allowing for more community involvement.
Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001). Environment and crime in the inner city: Does vegetation reduce crime?. Environment and behavior, 33(3), 343-367.
Saldivar-Tanaka, L., & Krasny, M. E. (2004). Culturing community development, neighborhood open space, and civic agriculture: The case of Latino community gardens in New York City. Agriculture and human values, 21(4), 399-412.
Taylor, M. S., Wheeler, B. W., White, M. P., Economou, T., & Osborne, N. J. (2015). Research note: Urban street tree density and antidepressant prescription rates—A cross-sectional study in London, UK. Landscape and Urban Planning, 136, 174-179.