Many studies have shown the importance of nature to our physical, mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing. Spending time in nature is thought to have such a profound healing effect that many doctors prescribe walks in the park, long hikes, and other nature-based activities to patients with anxiety and depression. Just in the last month, doctors in Scotland’s Shetland Islands also began prescribing “nature”, in the form of listening to birdsong, picking up driftwood and more, to patients with chronic illnesses as part of their overall treatment strategy.
Indeed, immersing oneself in nature is so beneficial to human health that the Japanese even coined a term for it in the 1980s. “Shinrin-yoku”, which means “taking in the forest atmosphere”, has also become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.
With exposure to nature having so many benefits, it’s easy to see why it’s such an important component of the newly launched Chōsen Experiences South Africa program, which sees attendees participate in wildlife experiences like rhino spotting, camping under the stars and canyoning. Actively leveraging the natural environment has, in fact, long been a part of the Chōsen program, because it helps maximize the learning impact of the Experience.
But how exactly does nature help us be better humans? Besides improving our physical fitness by getting us to move, experiencing nature has a positive effect on the brain. In studies, it’s been shown to restore depleted attention circuits, thus boosting our creativity and problem-solving skills and improving our ability to focus and process information.
Living in the city, where we’re constantly bombarded by noise, information and other distractions, can also make our brain tired. When we spend time in nature we give our fatigued brain a chance to slow down. After even just a brief period in a natural setting, the brain is rejuvenated and ready to resume mentally demanding tasks with renewed energy.
Furthermore, nature is a mood booster. In a Stanford University study, participants who walked in a natural setting versus an urban setting showed increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain whose deactivation is linked to depression and anxiety.
It also goes without saying that people who spend a lot of time in nature are more relaxed. There’s something to be said for the calming, nurturing effect of watching a sunset or waterfall, taking shelter under a canopy of trees, feeling the damp earth beneath our feet, inhaling a lungful of fresh mountain air and tasting the salt of the ocean on our tongue. What is more, natural settings are more conducive to quiet contemplation, thereby heightening our sense of self-awareness and opening us up to greater self-reflection and self-evaluation.
There are so many ways to connect with nature, from passive activities like mindfully observing an animal in the wild, gardening, resting on a sunny patch of grass and smelling a fragrant flower, to more active, high-energy ones like surfing, skiing, hiking an outdoor trail and rock climbing.
However you choose to enjoy the great outdoors, you’ll want to surrender yourself to the beauty of your surroundings and take your time appreciating every sight, smell, touch, taste and sound – this is what it means to be truly one with nature.