The healing power of nature, vis medicatrix naturae, has traditionally been defined as an internal healing response designed to restore health. Almost a century ago, famed biologist Sir John Arthur Thomson provided an additional interpretation of the word nature within the context of vis medicatrix, defining it instead as the natural, non-built external environment. He maintained that the healing power of nature is also that associated with mindful contact with the animate and inanimate natural portions of the outdoor environment. A century on, excessive screen-based media consumption, so-called screen time, may be a driving force in masking awareness of the potential benefits of nature. With global environmental concerns, rapid urban expansion, and mental health disorders at crisis levels, diminished nature contact may not be without consequence to the health of the individual and the planet itself. In the context of emerging research, we will re-examine Sir J. Arthur Thomson’s contention that the healing power of the nature-based environment – green space, forests and parks in particular – extends into the realm of mental health and vitality.
“What then do I mean tonight by the healing power of nature? I mean to refer to the way in which Nature ministers to our minds, all more or less diseased by the rush and racket of civilization, and helps to steady and enrich our lives. My first point is that there are deeply-rooted, old established, far-reaching relations between Man and Nature which we cannot ignore without loss… there would be less “psychopathology of everyday life” if we kept up our acquaintance… we have put ourselves beyond a very potent vis medicatrix if we cease to be able to wonder at the at the grandeur of the star-strewn sky, the mystery of the mountains, the sea eternally new, the way of the eagle in the air, the meanest flower that blows, the look in a dog’s eye.” .
Professor J. Arthur Thomson – “Vis Medicatrix Naturae” – Keynote Address at the Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association, 1914.
The healing power of nature – vis medicatrix naturae – is an ancient medical principle that includes reference to the innate ability of the body to heal itself. While acknowledging that vis medicatrix naturae can be influenced by anything from physician bedside manner to belief in placebo, medical scholars have typically defined it as an internal healing response designed to repair and rebuild . Consider, for example, the healing of a fracture; “naturae” in the contemporary context is what we now recognize as the production of immune chemicals and the initiation of enzymatic reactions, a proper balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines, osteoblast and osteoclast activity etc., in the remodeling of bones. However, a century ago biologist Sir John Arthur Thomson provided an additional interpretation of the word nature within the context of vis medicatrix, defining it instead as the natural, non-built physical environment in which humans live their lives – i.e. that the healing power of nature is also that associated with mindful immersion in and contact with the animate and inanimate natural portions of our external world . In our review we will re-examine the contentions of Sir J. Arthur Thomson, and in particular his suggestion that the healing power of the nature-based environment extends into the realm of mental health.