Why We Need More Time in the Natural World

One of my favorite wintertime activities is holing up and watching nature shows on TV. I am mesmerized by rare footage of snow leopards in the Himalayas and wild stallions in the Rockies. I am especially addicted to "Man vs. Wild," in which the well-named Bear Grylls strands himself in the world's most inhospitable places and challenges Mother Nature with his wits. I want Bear to eat tarantulas and drink his own urine so I don't have to.

I know these videos are a poor substitute for the real thing. Not only is our wilderness shrinking, but the time we have available to enjoy it is dwindling too. Nonetheless, even city people like me look for some sense of primal connection and emotional uplift through these vicarious video experiences. But is it possible to get the psychological benefits of wilderness through technological recreations, like nature TV, or do we actually need to feel the crunch of the snow and smell the pine needles? And what is it exactly that nature contributes to the human experience when we do get out in the elements?

Peter Kahn is one of a handful of environmental psychologists who have begun systematically exploring these questions. He and his colleagues at the University of Washington ran a series of experiments to see what benefit—if any—people get from high-quality technological versions of nature. In one experiment, for example, they installed plasma TV "windows" in workers' otherwise windowless offices for a period of 16 weeks, and then took various measures of psychological function. They found that those with the "views" of parkland and mountain ranges had a greater sense of well-being, clearer thinking, and a greater sense of connection to the natural world.

All that means, of course, is that HDTV is better than a blank wall. To see if the televised version stacks up against the real thing, Kahn ran another experiment in which some office workers had an actual view of a natural setting through a window—the old-fashioned glass kind—while others got the plasma version and still others the blank wall. They exposed all the workers to low levels of stress, but enough to make their heart rate go up; then waited to see how long it took them to calm down.

As reported in the February issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, only the actual view of the outdoors had a calming effect; the plasma window was no more restorative than the blank wall. In other words, the technological version of nature—even when it came in HDTV quality—couldn't fool the neurons.

But what exactly is being restored by such immediate connection with nature? Or, put another way, what are we missing without these experiences? An entirely different experiment sheds some light on this question. University of Michigan psychologist Marc Berman believes that nature actually shifts our brain from one processing mode to another. That is, when we walk around city streets with a lot of stimulation, we need to employ a very focused and analytic kind of attention; that's how we process rush-hour traffic and police sirens and other urban noises. That's also the kind of attention we need to study for exams, make financial decisions, and so forth—the business of daily life.

But this kind of attention can get depleted. Interacting with nature shifts the mind to a more relaxed and passive mode, allowing the more analytical powers to restore themselves. At least that's the theory, which Berman and his colleagues tested in a clever experiment. They gave a group of volunteers a very difficult cognitive test that measures the kind of focused attention needed for school and work. They then gave them an additional task to further deplete their normal ability to concentrate. This was the laboratory equivalent of having one of those hectic, demanding days at the office. Then all the volunteers took a three-mile walk. But half the volunteers took a leisurely stroll through a secluded part of the Ann Arbor Arboretum, while the others walked down Huron Street, a busy thoroughfare in downtown Ann Arbor. When they got back to the lab, the psychologists again measured their focus and concentration.

The findings were clear. As reported in the journal Psychological Science, those who had been on the nature walk had significantly better focus and attention than those who had been required to negotiate the city streets. It appears that interacting with nature requires a different and less demanding form of attention, and that the temporary switch-over allows workaday concentration to replenish. Getting into the woods and away from the hustle-and-bustle actually equips us to cope better with the cognitive demands of daily life.

So does living in our modern civilization have serious and permanent psychological consequences? Some scientists think it might—and perhaps already does. Kahn has done extensive cross-cultural studies of children's values and attitudes about open space and animal life and forests and plants and water—and the degradation and disappearance of all these things. He believes that, with every generation, kids are lowering their knowledge and expectations for what is a normal interaction with nature—creating a kind of generational amnesia about the natural world. City kids know about pollution in the abstract, for example, but have no idea that their air is a far cry from the clean air their grandparents breathed. If nature is indeed a source of mental and emotional replenishment, this could emerge as one of the most compelling psychological issues of the not-so-faraway future.