Did you know that more than half of the entire population currently lives in urban areas? It’s a lot and the number of people moving to cities is growing rapidly. The global migration from villages to metropolitan areas is drastically limiting our contact with nature. At the same time, we are observing something else - an increase in mental disorders. According to many scientists, these two trends may be related and suggest that the limitation of interaction with nature leads to changes in our mental functioning. Why is this happening?
Cities are the source of many potential stressors - road traffic, crime, overpopulation -generally, far too many stimuli. Let's look at the problem of noise in cities. In Europe alone, about 80 million people live in places with unacceptably high noise levels. Chronic noise has a very negative impact on our health and well-being - it can lead to stress, irritability, cardiovascular problems, sleep disorders and weaker cognitive functioning - it is harder for us to concentrate, we think less.
The good news is that we can find a respite and rest from the city noise in nature.
More and more studies show that living close to nature brings a number of positive effects on our mental health, well-being, and even life expectancy. A long-term research project led by a team of scientists from the European Center for Environment and Health has shown that simply moving to greener urban areas is associated with improving mental health.
According to many researchers, the mere viewing of natural landscapes affects our physiology very favorably by inducing positive emotional states, because the preference of this type of environments is inscribed in our nature through evolution. Interestingly, even indirect interactions with nature, such as the view from the window or a picture depicting nature, may be associated with a higher degree of well-being and satisfaction with life and reduce the physiological symptoms of stress.
But nature can do a lot more for us, it also helps in getting back to health - in patients after surgery, living in rooms overlooking trees instead of a brick wall, more positive emotions were recorded, they received less negative notes from nurses (registering the mood and attitude of patients), and their stay in the hospital was shorter.
Also, a one-hour walk surrounded by nature can increase the positive emotions of each of us. In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing", has been used since the early 1980s. Shinrin-yoku is about spending time in a forest setting, walking or just sitting. The first studies show that this practice reduces cortisol levels and lowers blood pressure.
In the urban environment, our attention control resources are significantly reduced because the surroundings are bursting with information overload. Our attention control is in permanent state of the highest readiness and continuous filtering of important but often irrelevant stimuli. This serves primarily to avoid potential threats. Continuous attention control allows us to properly react to a given situation or, if necessary, ignore it, but it has a price - it requires a lot of effort and, as a result, it may lead to mental fatigue and exhaustion of these special attention resources. Further consequences are a decrease in the ability to concentrate and cognitive functioning.
In one of the studies carried out in the dorm, it turned out that students living in rooms with windows overlooking nature were more likely to perform tasks involving concentration, than students deprived of such a view. Similarly, a walk surrounded by nature, compared to a walk in the city, brings benefits to the functioning of our memory, cognitive control and attention. In addition, it was shown that among children living in an urban environment, those with a daily view of nature were more efficient in performing tasks measuring memory, inhibition of impulses, selective attention and concentration. All these reports taken together suggest that greater contact with nature may involve a number of important benefits for cognitive functions.
What's the conclusion? Let's try to spend as much time as possible among greenery - in the forest, park or garden. The list of the benefits of being in nature is long! And there are many more to discover, as we are constantly surprised by some novelties in this field, and scientists are becoming more and more interested in looking at the potential hidden in nature.
About the author: Alicja Bińkowska is a PhD student of Psychology at the SWPS University; fascinated by how the brain works and research on psychedelic substances. That's what occupies her every day, and whenever she has the opportunity, she sits in the forest and admires nature.