Highlights from The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

Cover of The Nature Fix

Highlights from this book

  • People are happiest when they are well enmeshed in community and friendships, have their basic survival needs met, and keep their minds stimulated and engaged, often in the service of some sort of cause larger than themselves.

    — summarizing happiness data findings according to George MacKerron
  • The difference in joy respondents felt in urban versus natural settings (especially coastal environments) was greater than the difference they experienced from being alone versus being with friends, and about the same as doing favored activities like singing and sports versus not doing those things.

  • As the writer Annie Dillard once said, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

  • We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.

  • What I didn’t fully realize that evening the semi [moving truck] slid away with our worldly goods was how much the mountains had become my tonic. Nearly every day I was in them or on them or looking at them, often alone.

  • The idea with shinrin yoku [“forest bathing”], a term coined by the government in 1982 but based on ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, is to let nature into your body through all five senses.

  • …one of Japan’s forty-eight 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 68 percent of the country’s landmass, the agency has funded about $4 million in forest-bathing research since 2003.

  • [E.O.] Wilson didn’t actually coin the word “biophilia”; that honor goes to social psychologist Erich Fromm, who described it in 1973 as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea or a social group.”

  • [Yoshi-Fumi] Miyazaki points out that naturalistic outdoor environments in general remain some of the only places where we engage all five senses, and thus, by definition, are fully, physically alive. It is where our savanna-bred brains are, to borrow from John Muir, “home,” whether we consciously know it or not. By contrast, Muir wrote of time not in the wilderness: “I am degenerating into a machine for making money.”

  • He [Miyazaki] and his colleague Juyoung Lee, then also of Chiba University, found that leisurely forest walks, compared to urban walks, deliver a 12 percent decrease in cortisol levels. But that wasn’t all; they recorded a 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 6 percent decrease in heart rate.

  • If you have time for 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.

    — Qing Li
  • While the Japanese researchers understand our draw to nature, many American ones seem preoccupied with our pull away from it, our distractions, inertia and addictions. They want to know if resisting that pull and turning toward nature can enhance our productivity. Perhaps this cultural difference is what Miyazaki was explaining over his plate of sting ray: oneness versus me-ness. Americans want to know what can nature—that stuff over there— do for us? More Beowulf than Basho, the Americans want to slay the dragon and get back to the mead hall. They prefer to use delineated spurts of nature to optimize their success.

  • Among his dozens of influential studies are those showing that exercise causes new brain cells to grow, especially in areas related to memory, executive function and spatial perception. Before [Art] Kramer’s work, no one really believed physical activity could lead to such clear and important effects. Now people everywhere are routinely told that exercise is the single best way to prevent aging-related cognitive decline.

  • “Most of the time your brain can filter things out,” said Strayer, driving the black 4Runner over an increasingly rough dirt road. “It’s a strategic process. If traffic is heavy, your brain literally stops listening to NPR.”

  • As Stanford neuroscientist Daniel Levitin points out in The Organized Mind, our brain’s processing speed is surprisingly slow, about 120 bits per second. For perspective, it takes 60 bits per second just to understand one person speaking to us. Directed attention, or voluntary attention, is a limited resource. When it flags, we make mistakes; we get irritable. Moreover, task-switching, which is something we do an awful lot of these days, burns up precious oxygenated glucose from the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain, and this is energy we need for both cognitive and physical performance.

  • The way Strayer sees it, moving through any environment engages three main networks in the brain. There’s the executive network, which includes the intellectual, task-focused prefrontal cortex and does most of that stimulus and behavioral inhibition. There’s the spatial network, which orients us and does what it sounds like. Then there’s the default network, which kicks in when the executive network flags. They are yin and yang, oil and water, working only in opposition. You can only engage one or the other at any point in time. The default network is our free-ranging, day-dreaming, goal-setting, mind-wandering white noise that James so bemoaned for luring us from the real work to be done. But it is also the charismatic, elusive flower child of the brain. There’s much discussion these days about whether the default network is profligate, undisciplined and troublemaking, or the very stuff that poetry and human nature is made of. When people are overly ruminative, depressed, self-involved and self-critical, the default network is blamed by psychologists. Yet it is also credited with producing empathy, creativity and heights of insight. Attention scientists worship at the altar of this network, because “it gives us our most human experiences, our deep aesthetic sense, our ability to do the deep things that are unique to us,” as Atchley put it. That sounds exalted, but there’s another important and more pragmatic reason they like it: it allows the executive office of the brain to rest, all the better to rebound at top performance.

  • It would appear that when we have a positive nature experience, it engages what’s good in the default network without allowing us to wallow too much in what’s problematic.

  • Although we can’t always do much to turn off the barrage of stressors in our lives, we can try harder to get the restorative reprieves—from quick nature doses to longer ones—that give our thinking brains a chance to recover.

  • Beginning in the early 1980s, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan noticed that psychological distress was often related to mental fatigue. They speculated that our constant daily treadmill of tasks was wearing out our frontal lobes.

  • What leads to brain-resting? I had asked her [Rachel Kaplan]. “Soft fascination,” she’d said. That’s what happens when you watch a sunset, or the rain. The most restorative landscapes, she said, are the ones that hit the sweet spot of being interesting but not too interesting. What leads to brain-resting? I had asked her. “Soft fascination,” she’d said. That’s what happens when you watch a sunset, or the rain. The most restorative landscapes, she said, are the ones that hit the sweet spot of being interesting but not too interesting.

  • In Korea, one of the most powerful spirits is the sanshin, the mountain spirit. Trees, too, have long been venerated as guardians of people and villages.

  • The quietest place in the country, [Gordon] Hempton discovered, is a spot in the Hoh Rainforest at Olympic National Park. If you want to hear the earth without us, it’s marked by a red stone on a moss-covered log at 47-degrees 51.959N, 123-degrees 52.221W, 678 feet above sea level. But get there early; by midday, even there, you can hear overflights a dozen times per hour.

  • In the largest and scariest study to date looking at noise pollution and children’s cognition, funded by the European Union and published in the Lancet in 2005, researchers followed several thousand children attending elementary schools near major airports in the U.K., Spain and the Netherlands. They found significant impacts on reading comprehension, memory and hyperactivity. The results were linear: for every 5-decibel increase in noise, reading scores dropped the equivalent of a two-month delay, so that kids were almost a year behind in neighborhoods that were 20 decibels louder (results were adjusted for income and other factors).

  • Once upon a time in Finland, there were little forest spirits who could put spells on people who were too noisy or who treated the forest with disrespect. The victims would experience a condition called metsänpeitto, which translates as being “covered by the forest.”

  • [Kalevi] Korpela has become known for studies about “favorite places” and their positive influence on mental health. In his studies, when he asks respondents to name their favorite places, over 60 percent describe a natural area such as lake, beach, park, garden or woods.

  • Clearings. That’s what I needed. Slowly my brain righted itself into spaces unused for months.

    — Helen Macdonald
  • The landscape here, as in Finland, is a unifying force, rooted in the bones of people who grew up with it. It’s also rooted in the Gaelic language itself. There’s the word weet, to rain slightly, and williwaw, a sudden, violent squall, and wewire, to flit about as foliage does in wind, and that’s just the W’s. How perfect is this: crizzle, “the sound and action of open water as it freezes”?

  • To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice,” he wrote. “Up! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you, if you approach it in the right spirit! Out in the morning!

    — Walt Whitman
  • Lisa Nisbet at Trent University was sending over 9,000 people out into the verdure for the May-long “30 x 30 nature challenge”—30 minutes a day of walking, for 30 days in a row).

  • According to [Edmund] Burke, for something to be truly awe-inspiring, it must possess “vastness of extent” as well as a degree of difficulty in our ability to make sense of it.

  • The word “awe” derives from Old English and Norse words for the fear and dread one felt before a divine being.

  • Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

    — John Muir
  • In schools with conventional urban playgrounds, the boys tend to run around more than the girls. But studies in Sweden show the exercise gap between boys and girls narrows in more naturalistic environments. Nature levels gendered play.

  • Tim Beatley, who runs the Biophilic Cities Project at the University of Virginia, promotes a concept called the nature pyramid…Inspired by the ubiquitous food pyramid, Beatley places at the base the daily interactions with nearby nature that help us destress, find focus and lighten our mental fatigue. These are the birds and trees and fountains in our neighborhoods, our pets and our house plants, public and private architecture that allow for daylight, fresh air and patches of blue sky and naturalistic landscaping. These are our daily vegetables, and Singapore, laser lights and all, has it nailed. We should all be so lucky. Moving up the pyramid are weekly outings to parks and waterways, places where the sounds and hassles of the city recede, places that we should aim to imbibe at least an hour or so a week in the Finnish fashion. These might include wilder, bigger city parks if we’re lucky, or regional parks that we can travel to fairly easily. Moving up higher still are the places that take more effort to get to: the monthly excursions to forests or other restful, escapist natural areas along the lines of what Japan’s Qing Li recommends—a weekend per month—for our immune systems. At the very pinnacle are the rare but essential doses of wilderness, which Beatley and scientists like Utah’s David Strayer think we need yearly or biyearly, in intense multiday bursts.