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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nature as Healer

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth host Steve Curwood explores the emerging evidence that surrounding oneself with nature can be a healing act, and that being cut off from nature can contribute to stress and even social conflict. This report is the second in a periodic series exploring the “Biophilia Hypothesis” of biologist Edward O. Wilson.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: It's a universal human experience, that moment when the natural world takes away our breath with its beauty, its poignancy, its wacky inventiveness. It can happen on a hike, on a stroll at the beach, or with the discovery of a bird's nest in our own back yard. Nature has always struck a powerful chord in humans.

(Modem "deep space" electronic sounds)

CURWOOD: But in a world that's increasingly paved over and resynthesized, it's a chord that's sounding less and less often.

(Modem sounds continue)

CURWOOD: What does it mean when we're cut off from the natural world? Does it affect our mental health? Turn the questions around. What does contact with the natural world do for our well being? More and more researchers are asking these questions and finding some startling answers.

WILSON: I think the evidence is mounting that we are in great need of the remainder of life.

HEERWAGEN: I think the sense of pleasure that we can get from the environment probably has very profound implications for our well being.

ROSZAK: I think the biophilia hypothesis suggests that there is a level of the human mind or spirit that is linked almost genetically to the natural world.


WILSON: Biophilia means the natural, by which I mean hereditary, affiliation that human beings have and feel for the natural environment.

CURWOOD: That's Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, a great thinker who has won 2 Pulitzer Prizes. Professor Wilson says that because humans evolved in nature, we have an innate love of life. Not just human life but the whole natural order that nurtured us. Scientists often use Latin names, so Professor Wilson calls his notion the Biophilia Hypothesis: literally, the Love of Life. And humans, he says, need nature to thrive.

WILSON: That's not a new idea. It's been very much in the spirit of the times and the thinking of natural philosophers going back to Lucretius.

CURWOOD: What is new is that Professor Wilson and others exploring his biophilia hypothesis are looking for evidence that the human need for nature is rooted in our genes, which hold our deep memories that go back for millions of years. And they think they're starting to find it, in the way people respond to certain types of environments.

(Chamber music)

CURWOOD: Think, Professor Wilson says, of the gardens of the world.

WILSON: And here we have something that does run across cultures, from Babylon to Mesoamerica, back to the formal gardens of Europe and on to the exquisite gardens of old China and Japan.

CURWOOD: Think of the palaces and estates that people have built the world over when they have grand resources. They look remarkably like the African savannas, Professor Wilson says, where the great apes first came down out of the trees, stood upright, and turned into humans.

WILSON: The optimum environment appears to be upon a prominence overlooking parkland, that is, savanna-like environments with dots of trees and copses, and also overlooking water. In other words, the optimum environment is precisely what the rich and the powerful choose everywhere in the world, when they're able to make a free choice. In Manhattan it's a penthouse with a terrace, well-stocked with tropical plants and shrubs and overlooking the lake in Central Park.

(Chamber music continues)

CURWOOD: And simple back yards and public parks also serve those of us who aren't so rich as well. Central Park was built back when people were flocking to the highly unnatural factories and urban congestion of the industrial revolution. Its designer, Frederick Law Olmstead, suggested that the building of great public green spaces might be a self-preserving instinct of civilization. And indeed, researchers exploring the biophilia hypothesis, point to how city people rejoice in their back yard gardens and public parks as evidence of the deep human need for contact with nature.

HEERWAGEN: We are responding in a very old and an ancient way, I think, to current living conditions.

CURWOOD: Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist at the Batelle Northwest Laboratories in Seattle, who is exploring how humans respond to different kinds of environments. In one study, Dr. Heerwagen showed people images of both natural and built landscapes. Her sample was narrow, but her findings were provocative. Her subjects almost always preferred the images of natural environments. Dr. Heerwagen thinks that evolution explains this preference for nature.

HEERWAGEN: We need to think of it in terms of what does this do for us? How does it help us survive? How does it help us live? I think that the sense of pleasure and well-being that we get out of nature comes from the very long evolutionary history of living in natural environments and having to extract information and resources from nature, so it had a lot of payoffs for us to be able to tell if an environment was safe or not, and if it had protection and resources.

CURWOOD: This emotional relationship to nature, Dr. Heerwagen says, is part of our evolutionary survival mechanism.


CURWOOD: And there's evidence that nature nurtures us, as well.

ULRICH: One category of influences has been broadly termed restorative influences.

CURWOOD: Roger Ulrich is a professor of landscape architecture at Texas A&M University. He studied the vital signs of people first shown a stressful movie, and then shown videotapes of either natural settings or urban environments without nature. There were clear differences in heart rates, blood pressure, and muscle tension. Compared to those who had looked at buildings and pavement, the group which watched the nature clip showed signs of lower stress. Ulrich has also studied the actual health outcomes and recovery rates of some US hospital patients, whose rooms look out on trees and grass, versus those who see only other buildings. And he says the patients with the natural views healed better.

ULRICH: Examples would be reduced need for pain drugs, fewer minor complications, say, develop following surgery that are thought to have a psychological component such as persistent headache or nausea. Blood pressure will decline. Muscles will become more relaxed. Brain electrical activity will change in such a way to suggest that the person is feeling more wakefully relaxed. Such restorative effects for hospital patients have been recorded in a study or studies using real patients, not in laboratories or simulated situations, in real hospitals, looking out real windows, for instance, at real nature, or real urban lacking nature. And these beneficial influences have been found.

CURWOOD: Like Judith Heerwagen and E.O. Wilson, Professor Ulrich believes what he's seeing are adaptive responses to evolutionary pressures.

ULRICH: After all, daily life for early humans was full of challenges and taxing experiences. So one is left with the notion that it would have been sensible to have the capacity to be restored from this experience, rather quickly. And that if we encountered an unthreatening, natural environment with the right characteristics, this should elicit a fairly quick onset restoration. This would be adaptive because it would help us conserve our physical and psychological resources, and we would be in a much better position to respond or deal quickly with a new situation.

(Trains pulling into a station)

CURWOOD: No one exploring the biophilia hypothesis suggests that if we have a genetic tendency which attracts us to nature, we can't live creative, healthy, and productive lives in civilization. But what happens when we're completely cut off from nature? What if we're locked up in a modern city without a back yard or a green park to take refuge?

ROSZAK: Speaking as a historian, I can assure you that cities have never been as inorganic, as ecocidal, as they have become in modern times.

CURWOOD: Theodore Roszak is a professor at the University of California at Hayward.

ROSZAK: In times past, the line between the city and the country was much, much more fluid and loosely drawn. If nothing else, cities were a lot dirtier. But at the very least, people were closer to the stuff of life.

CURWOOD: Recall what Judith Heerwagen of the Battelle Lab says about how the sense of pleasure we get from contact with nature may be linked to how our ancestors used to find food and shelter. If certain natural cues help make us feel safe, Dr. Heerwagen says, then an environment without them might do just the opposite.

HEERWAGEN: I think that in environments where these are missing, the signal that it's sending out is that these places are devoid of many things that we value. They're resource-poor, they're not cared for. They have a sense that they're not livable.

(Construction noises: Drills, etc.)

CURWOOD: But of course people are complex creatures, and we do live in such places. Today, billions of us spend our lives surrounded by asphalt, glass, cinderblock and sheet metal. And some of us that do have green space outside rarely bother to look. Dr. Heerwagen believes that this constant separation from nature can cause people to become unsettled, stressed out, anxious. Theodore Roszak, who has been a pioneer in the field of eco-psychology, is more direct.

ROSZAK: Let me put it as bluntly as I, as we can. We have detached ourselves so much from the natural environment that it is wounding our mental health.

CURWOOD: Professor Roszak believes that symptoms of this kind of detachment, these wounds, are all around us. An example, he says, is the view of the natural world as being just so much real estate to be bought and sold, or resources to be extracted. Professor Wilson, meanwhile, wonders whether another symptom might be the breakdown so common in society today.

WILSON: I believe it is true that what we recognize as social pathology, the sharp divisions among people, the increase in crime, rioting, homelessness, indifference of people to the needs and suffering of other people, does arise in environments where human beings are most separated from the environments in which they originated.

CURWOOD: So too many buildings, too many people, too many cars, not enough trees, not enough open space - this in part may be what's tearing apart our cities?

WILSON: There's no question that urban environments are stressful. There's no question that people are more prone to violent behavior, to indifference toward their neighbors, if they're forced to remain in a very unnatural, crowded urban environment.

CURWOOD: It's all still very new, this idea that a need for contact with nature might be a fundamental part of our nature. But if it is true, E.O. Wilson and others exploring the biophilia hypothesis say that when we take care of nature, we are in fact taking care of ourselves, and our own abilities to survive and thrive. On a grand scale, this means saving species and whole ecosystems. But on a daily basis, it may be just as important, if not more so, to have nature at home, at work, and in our communities. Keeping a few geraniums by our front door and keeping the oak trees on our street may help us keep our sanity. Again, Dr. Judith Heerwagen.

HEERWAGEN: We may think this is trivial, and if we were out, to go out and measure the effects, they probably would be kind of small given all of the other things going on in people's lives. But I think that there's more and more evidence that these small pleasures in our life, the ability to sort of just sit outside and watch the birds or listen to the birds, to see the trees grow, to see them bud, to see them flower. These kinds of things really are good for us; they do kind of free the mind in a way that we're just beginning to realize is really important.


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