The Nature Fix

Title: The Nature Fix

Author: Florence Williams

Overview: Compilation of current research about the benefits of getting outside and the impact of nature on our health.


  • The Finnish recommended nature dose: five hours a month.
  • working longer hours than anyone else in the developed world. It’s gotten to the point where they’ve coined a term, karoshi—death from overwork. The phenomenon was identified during the 1980s bubble economy when workers in their prime started dropping dead,
  • To test the phytoncide theory, Li locked thirteen subjects in hotel rooms for three nights. In some rooms, he rigged a humidifier to vaporize stem oil from hinoki cypress trees, which are common in Japan; other rooms emitted eau-de-nothing. The results? The cypress sleepers experienced a 20 percent increase in NK cells during their stay, and they also reported feeling less fatigued. The control group saw no changes.
  • “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.”
  • Attention is our currency, and it’s precious.
  • Studies show that when people walk in nature, they obsess over negative thoughts much less than when they walk in a city.
  • 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. They should entice our attention but not demand it. The landscapes should also be compatible with our sense of aesthetics and offer up a little bit of mystery.
  • “It’s what Kaplan calls mystery.” Watson told us about a recent study he’d done that largely confirmed Kaplan’s mystery element. He and his colleagues showed a couple hundred subjects images of nature scenes, some with flat, predictable trails and some with winding or partly obscured scenery, the kind of images that compelled the viewers to want to peek around the corner. Even though the subjects saw the images very briefly, just a matter of seconds, they remembered the mysterious scenes better. In other words, there was something about mystery that improved cognitive recall.
  • Tsunetsugo misted fifty-two infants with the major components of hinoki: pinene and limonene. The pinene instantly lowered their heart rates four points, while the limonene and the control did not make a difference.
  • Even Windex changes our behavior. People assigned to a room sprayed with the pungent cleaner expressed a greater willingness to volunteer and donate money to a cause than participants in a neutral- smelling room. The hypothesis is that the smell of “cleanliness” makes us aspirational. Who knew: Windex is the smell of virtue.
  • In a study of 2,000 men over age 40, environmental noise above 50 decibels was associated with a 20 percent increase in hypertension. In another study of 4,800 adults over age 45, every 10-decibel increase in nighttime noise was linked to a 14 percent rise in hypertension. Health experts studying nearly a million people living near the Bonn airport found that women living with noise over 46 decibels were twice as likely to be on medication for hypertension as those living with levels under 46 decibels.
  • 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).
  • Treasure, the British consultant, recommends that everyone listen to birdsong at least five minutes a day.
  • Taylor measured people’s skin conductance and found that they recovered from stress 60 percent better when viewing computer images with a mathematical fractal dimension (called D) of between 1.3 and 1.5. D measures the ratio of the large, coarse patterns (the coastline seen from a plane, the main trunk of a tree, Pollock’s big-sweep splatters) to the fine ones (dunes, rocks, branches, leaves, Pollock’s micro flick splatters).
  • According to large surveys, the average Finn engages in nature-based recreation two to three times per week. Fifty-eight percent of Finns go berry-picking, 35 percent cross-country ski, often in Arctic darkness, under lights in large city parks. Seventy percent hike regularly, compared to the European and American average of about 30 percent. Fifty percent of Finns ride bikes, 20 percent jog and 30 percent walk a dog, and I particularly like this one: 5 percent of the population, or 250,000 people, partake in long-distance ice-skating. All told, over 95 percent of Finns regularly spend time recreating in the outdoors.
  • The good news for city dwellers is that just fifteen to forty-five minutes in a city park, even one with pavement, crowds and some street noise, were enough to improve mood, vitality and feelings of restoration. “The results of our experiment suggest that the large urban parks (more than 5 hectares) and large urban woodlands have positive well-being effects on urban inhabitants, and in particular for healthy middle-aged women,” the study concluded, as published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.
  • “Within 200 milliseconds, people react positively when they see images of nature,” he explained. “The picture you’ve seen affects how you respond, because the picture evokes your emotions.” Moving up the matrix, Ulrich’s experiments with the bloody woodshop videos followed by nature videos showed a decrease in subjects’ heart rates, in facial muscle tension, and changes in skin conductance typically occurring within 4 to 7 minutes. The Japanese and Finnish studies found lower blood pressure, lower circulating cortisol and improved mood after 15 to 20 minutes. At around 45 or 50 minutes of being in nature, many subjects show stronger cognitive performance as well as feelings of vitality and psychological reflection.
  • Here’s the emerging European coda on public health from Finland, Sweden and Scotland: encourage people—especially distressed populations—to walk, often together, and provide safe, attractive and naturalistic places for them to do it. The research also suggests some special places to go: forests and coastlines.
  • As the epidemiologist Ian Alcock put it, if you want to be happy, there is a simple, scientific formula: “get married, get a job and live near the coast.”
  • he figured out that forty minutes of moderate walking per day could protect the aging brain from some cognitive decline, especially in executive function skills, memory and psychomotor speed.
  • According to 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. That awe also inspires feelings of humility and a more outward perspective has been well described by philosophers, priests and poets.
  • Keltner had already posited that awe is a unique emotion that turns us away from narrow self-focus and toward the interests of our collective group.
  • they attempted to induce awe in real time by taking subjects to a tall grove of Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees, and asking them to look up for one minute. They sent other subjects to look up at a tall science building. In both settings, a lab assistant “accidentally” dropped a handful of pens. Even after just one minute of awe, the tree-gazers were more helpful, picking up more pens on average than their counterparts.
  • Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life. — JOHN MUIR
  • The fact is, all human children learn by exploration. So I had to wonder if we are cutting them off at the knees, not just with medication, but through overstructured, overmanaged classrooms and sports teams, less freedom to roam and ever-more-dazzling indoor seductions.
  • In one experiment, exposure to nature reduced reported symptoms of ADHD in children threefold compared with staying indoors. In another, she had 17 children aged eight to eleven with ADHD walk for 20 minutes with a guide in three different settings: a residential neighborhood, an urban downtown street and a park setting. After the park walk they performed so much better memorizing numbers in backward sequence that the improvement was equal to the difference between having ADHD or not having it, as well as to the difference between not being medicated at all and experiencing the peak effects of common ADHD medication.
  • When Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University, restricted the free exploration and play of his young rats, their frontal lobes (which control executive function) failed to grow properly. As adults, they behaved like rat-style sociopaths.
  • Ritalin and Adderall may improve attention skills and academic performance in many kids, they do so at the cost of killing the exploration urge, at least temporarily. “We know these are anti-play drugs,”
  • A large meta-analysis of dozens of studies concluded that physical activity in school-age children (4–18) increases performance in a trove of brain matter: perceptual skills, IQ, verbal ability, mathematic ability, academic readiness. The effect was strongest in younger children. Even more intriguing, researchers at Pennsylvania State University have found that early social skills matter more than academic ones in predicting future success.
  • Putting it into raw economic perspective, the health boost in those living on blocks with about 11 more trees than average was equivalent to a $20,000 gain in median income.
  • Distilling what I learned, I came up with a kind of ultrasimple coda: Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.