The evolution of the human environment is taking us further from nature than we’ve ever been before in the history of humanity. The separation from nature is the cause of all human suffering and consequently provides clues for the solutions to human suffering. And few suffering symptoms are worse, more toxic and have more flow on than lost mojo.
Lost mojo leads to lost confidence, lost jobs, lost clients, lost intimacy, lost immunity. Lost mojo is a warning from nature. A precursor to illness, business breakdown, marriage failure and mental health issues. And the first line of defence against lost mojo is not coffee. It’s reconnecting to nature. Seems obvious that if the cause of lost mojo is disconnection from nature one would automatically diagnose the medicine but time poor executives seem to think that losing more sleep, drinking more wine, winning another contract might do it. Lets look at the evidence.
These days, screen-addicted Australians are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And nope, there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside. Florence Williams travels to the deep woods of Japan, where researchers are backing up the surprising theory that nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression, beat back stress
Adapted From Outside magazine
Nov 28, 2012
We challenge organisations and individuals to align themselves with nature’s law. The evolution of the human environment is taking us further from nature than we’ve ever been before in the history of humanity. The separation from nature is the cause of all human suffering and consequently provides clues for the solutions to human suffering.
These days, screen-addicted executives are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And nope, there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside. Florence Williams travels to the deep woods of Japan, where researchers are backing up the surprising theory that nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression, beat back stress.
Japanese go crazy for this practice of using nature as preventive medicine, it’s about the nature-civilization hybrid the Japanese have cultivated for thousands of years. You stroll a little, maybe write a haiku, crack open a spicebush twig and inhale its woodsy, sassy scent.People come out from the city and literally shower in the greenery, this way they are able to become relaxed.
We needed this. Most of us are urban desk jockeys, We’ve even coined a term, karoshi, meaning death by overwork. Since we began taking people to nature and teaching nature’s principles.
The idea with shinrin-yoku, a term coined by the government in 1982 but inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, is to let nature enter your body through all five senses. Just this alone causes blood pressure to drop a couple of points..
Japan has 48 official Forest Therapy trails, designated for shinrin-yoku by Japan’s Forestry Agency. In an effort to benefit the Japanese and find nonextractive ways to use forests, which cover 67 percent of the country’s landmass, the government has funded about $4 million in forest-bathing research since 2004. It intends to designate a total of 100 Forest Therapy sites within 10 years.
So it makes sense that Japan’s scientists are in the vanguard of knowing how green spaces soothe the body and brain. While a small but impressive shelf of psychological research in recent decades suggests that spending time in nature improves cognition, relieves anxiety and depression, and even boosts empathy, scientists in Japan are measuring what’s actually happening to our cells and neurons. Led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki from the University of Chiba and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, they’re using field tests, hormone analysis, and new brain-imaging technology to uncover how the magic works on a molecular level.
“The Japanese work is essential, a Rosetta stone,” says Alan C. Logan, co-author of the recent book Your Brain on Nature. “We have to validate the ideas scientifically, through stress physiology, or we’re still stuck at Walden Pond.” Americans have often relegated nature to the romantic realm of Thoreau and Abbey. Viewing it as medicine is still largely foreign. “Studying the impact of the natural world on the brain is actually a scandalously new idea,” says Richard Louv, author of the 2008 bestseller Last Child in the Woods—the book that minted the term nature deficit disorder—and The Nature Principle, his 2010 follow-up about adults. “It should’ve been studied 30 to 50 years ago.”
But the Japanese evidence is appearing at a good time. Books like Louv’s, combined with an explosion in new digital distractions and malaises, are helping to define a cultural moment, what might be called a new slow-nature movement. We are rediscovering our inherent biophilia—what Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson and Yale social ecologist Stephen Kellert defined as humanity’s affinity for nature. And we see now that we have become what John Muir described as “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.”
Indeed, in 2008, the world reached a curious milestone: more people lived in urban areas than outside of them. In the U.S., urban areas grew faster in 2010 and 2011 than suburban regions for the first time since the 1920s. According to Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows, the average American spends at least eight hours a day looking at some sort of electronic screen. Then we try to relax by watching TV. Bad idea. Research shows that this only makes us crabbier. Logan asserts that, since the age of the Internet, North Americans have become more aggressive, more narcissistic, more distracted, more depressed, and less cognitively nimble. Oh yeah, and fatter.
And don’t think you’re off the hook if you exercise outdoors. You are quite likely still tethered to civilization. Perhaps you’re strapped to a heart monitor or headset. Admit it: Have you brought your phone? Are you clocking wind sprints? Sure, you are deriving some mental and physical benefits, but evidence is mounting that to get the most out of nature, you really need to be present in it, not distracted by your own great story of self.
Executives spend too much time sitting inside. Social-media platforms occupy people’s free time and then they say there’s not enough me time. People are grumbling and obsessing over their fate, relationships, and kids.
IF THE JAPANESE EMBRACE of forest therapy can be attributed to one man, it’s Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist and vice director of Chiba University’s Center for Environment, Health, and Field Sciences, located just outside Tokyo. Miyazaki believes that because humans evolved in nature, it’s where we feel most comfortable, even if we don’t always know it. “Throughout our evolution, we’ve spent 99.9 percent of our time in natural environments,” he says. “Our physiological functions are still adapted to it. During everyday life, a feeling of comfort can be achieved if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.”
To prove it, Miyazaki has taken more than 600 research subjects into the woods since 2004. He and his colleague Juyoung Lee, also of Chiba University, have found that leisurely forest walks, compared with urban walks, yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. On subjective tests, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety.
As Miyazaki concludes in a 2011 paper, “This shows that stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy.”
For a healthy corporate culture, nature can become part of your mind, body and philosophy. This impacts the brain geography that deals with cognitive and executive functions, such as planning, problem solving, and decision making. Being in nature gives these frontal lobes a much needed rest. When we are relaxed and at ease in our environment, our parasympathetic system—sometimes called the rest-and-digest branch—kicks in, stimulating appetite. This is why food tastes better in the outdoors. But the constant stimulus of modern life triggers our sympathetic nervous system, which governs fight-or-flight behaviors. And triggers it, and triggers it. A long trail of research dating back to the 1930s shows that people with chronically high cortisol levels and blood pressure are more prone to heart disease and depression.
Nature in corporate life isn’t an entirely new idea. Beginning in the 1970s, researchers at the University of Michigan, led by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, noticed that psychological distress was often related to mental fatigue. Modern life demands what the Kaplans call sustained directed attention on tasks both important and mundane—checking email, working a desk job, finding a parking spot. What leads to resting our brains’ directed-attention function? “Soft fascination,” explains Rachel Kaplan from her plant-filled university office. This is what happens when you watch a butterfly or the sunset or rain. You can’t help but stop multitasking or kvetching. That’s why Kaplan recommends a decidedly nonathletic approach to the outdoors, at least at times.
“When you’re pursuing a sport, you get cardiac points, but you’re not necessarily getting nature points,” she says. Research by her colleague Jason Duvall suggests that when you are distracted outside—running with an iPod, say—you may be more irritable and impatient later, less able to stay on task, focus, and plan than your nature-engaged peers.
Studies by the Kaplans and others show that after short walks in greenery, or even spells of looking at nature images in a lab, subjects’ directed-attention capabilities at least partly recover—people perform significantly better on cognitive tests and report feeling happier. They behave less selfishly when playing computer games. Turning down the front-brain disco ball also seems to improve creativity. And the more time in nature, the better. A recent pilot study by psychologists Paul and Ruth Ann Atchley of the University of Kansas and David Strayer of the University of Utah found that after three days of hiking and camping in the wilderness, participants in an Outward Bound course improved their scores on tests of creativity by 50 percent. “I’ll admit I’m a believer that there’s something profound going on,” says Strayer.
Yet, it’s been hard to see inside the brain to observe these processes at work. Neuroscientists want quantitative visuals. That’s starting to happen, mostly in labs in South Korea and the U.S. Studies have shown that when subjects look at pictures of nature, hemoglobin levels drop in the prefrontal cortex, meaning that the home base of executive function has switched a few lights off. (Similar effects have been seen in the brains of Tibetan monks, who appear to dim their brain wattage through meditation.)
Where’s the action going instead? To other parts of the brain, like the insula and the basal ganglia, says Kaplan protégé Marc Berman, now at the University of Toronto’s Rotman Research Institute. These are areas sometimes associated with emotion, pleasure, and empathy.
Berman has recently begun using functional MRI to watch people’s brains as they look at images of nature through virtual-reality glasses. “What we’re trying to find out is, what does a restored brain look like, and what does it look like as it’s getting restored?” says Berman. In the real world, filled with real nature, he would expect the effects to be even more pronounced. Miyazaki and Lee, with their hemoglobin-measuring spectrometer, intend to find out.
But how long do the feel-good effects of nature last? Are they simply wiped out by the first traffic jam or cell-phone ditty?
One of Miyazaki’s collaborators, Qing Li, an immunologist in the department of hygiene and public health at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, had the same question. The chairman of the Society of Forest Medicine, a small but growing international group of academics, Li is interested in nature’s effect on the human immune system. A person’s natural killer immune cells (NK cells for short) can, like cortisol and hemoglobin, be reliably measured in a lab. A type of white blood cell, NK cells are handy to have around, since they send self-destruct messages to tumors and virus-infected cells. It’s been known for a long time that factors like stress, aging, and pesticides can reduce your NK count, at least temporarily. So, Li wondered, if nature reduces stress, could it also increase your NK cells and thereby help you fight infections and cancer?
In 2005 and 2006, Li brought a group of middle-aged Tokyo businessmen into the woods. For three days, they hiked in the morning and again in the afternoon. By the end, blood tests showed that their NK cells had increased 40 percent. A month later, their NK count was still 15 percent higher than when they started. By contrast, during urban walking trips, NK levels didn’t change.
Since most of us can’t spend three days a week walking in the woods, Li was curious to know if a one-day trip to a suburban park would have a similar effect. It did, boosting the levels of both NK cells and anticancer proteins for at least seven days afterward.
What was going on? Li suspected that trees were important. Specifically, he wondered if NK cells are affected by “aromatic volatile substances,” otherwise known as scents, sometimes called phytoncides. These are the pinenes, limonenes, and other aerosols emitted by evergreens and many other trees. Scientists have identified 50 to 100 of these phytoncides in the Japanese countryside and virtually none in city air that’s not directly above a park.
This wasn’t a totally left-field idea. Studies have attributed healthful properties to soil compounds like actinomycetes, which the human nose can detect at concentrations of 10 parts per trillion. And since the mid-1990s, researchers have been studying pinene for its antimicrobial properties and limonene, which is given off by citrus and other trees, as a possible tumor suppressor in cancer patients.
To test the phytoncide theory, Li sequestered 12 subjects in hotel rooms. In some rooms, he rigged a humidifier to vaporize stem oil from common Hinoki cypress trees; other rooms got nothing. The results? The cypress dwellers had a 20 percent increase in NK cells during their three-night stay and reported feeling less fatigued. The control group saw almost no changes.
“It’s like a miracle drug,” said Li.
It sounds hokey that evergreen scents—the kind of thing given off by those cardboard trees dangling from the rearview mirrors of taxicabs—could help us live longer. But Li found similar results with NK cells in a petri dish: they increased in the presence of aromatic cypress molecules. So did anti-cancer proteins and proteases called granulysin, granzymes A and B, and perforin, which act by causing tumor cells to self-destruct. Li’s olfaction theory is unconventional, but it contains some of that Zen five-sense wisdom. While American researchers are mostly showing people pictures of nature, the Japanese are pouring it into every orifice.
Li believes that, while being around big trees in forests offers us the greatest benefit, flora from other landscapes, and possibly even houseplants, release these substances, too. Before taking a drag, candidates hooked up to a blood-pressure machine. Then they unscrewed the cap of a forest elixir and inhaled. The oil gave off a nice pitchy, vaguely turpentine scent. They put the cap back on and read blood pressure again. It had dropped, on average, 12 points. This is a very big effect, bigger than people get with pharmaceuticals. In fact, you can use a humidifier with cypress oil almost every night in the winter. You don’t need to harvest your own. Standard health-store aromatherapy oils work fine.
If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.
You don’t need a management consultant to tell you that flowers and chirping birds make us feel good. But if the benefits of getting outside are so intuitive, why don’t more of us do it? Nature-based recreation has declined 35 percent in the U.S. in the past four decades, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We underestimate the curative effects, or perhaps we’re just too readily beguiled by the easy entertainments of technology. But will having more data about how nature works on our bodies lure us into the woods? We know we’re supposed to eat more leafy greens, but most of us don’t.
The kale analogy is pretty apt, because it turns out that even when we don’t enjoy spending time in nature, like during lousy winter conditions, we benefit from it just the same. At least that’s what Toronto’s Berman found when research subjects took walks in an arboretum on a blustery winter day. The walkers didn’t really enjoy themselves, but they still performed much better on tests measuring short-term memory and attention.
Japanese researchers understand our draw to nature, but American researchers understand our pull away from it—our distractions, inertia, and addictions. They want to help motivate us, to make our doses of nature so palatable and efficient that we hardly notice them. This is the next frontier in forest-therapy science, all aided by brain imaging.
Berman, for example, wants to figure out exactly which features (ponds, trees, biodiversity) yield the biggest bang in the brain. The idea is that once researchers know more about what makes our brains happy, that information can be fed into public-policy decisions, urban planning, and architectural design. The research has profound implications for schools, hospitals, prisons, and public housing. Imagine bigger windows, more trees in cities, and mandatory lie-on-the-grass breaks.
This approach, of course, is classically Western. Manipulate the environment; feel nature without even trying. As for our consulting, we look for a more East-meets-West approach. We’ll continue to change lives by both encouraging organisations to include nature in their cultural norms and we’ll help individuals think in tune with nature’s harmony. That way, we get the best of both worlds.
Maybe it begins when we try harder to quit checking text messages and instead watch a bird or two, or whales or even a plant growing in the office, and scratch and sniff some pine cones or run our hands through the moss. Maybe even drink a little bark tea. We know this works, it replaces the rhetoric of balance and wellness with real, simple, no cost, time conserving nature connectivity. Maybe this is the future for you and your business? If so, give us a call.