By Dimitra Didangelou, Psychologist, MSc Media Psychology, Specialist in Therapeutic Writing
“The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.”
Henry D. Thoreau, Walden (Life in the Woods)
It’s Monday afternoon, a hard day at work has just finished and you return home. How do you relax? Turn on your computer and check out the social media news while watching something on TV? Or do you prefer to change your clothes and go out for some outdoor activities, perhaps go for a walk in a nearby park?
Most people usually prefer to do the first without a second thought. It is a fact that in the last few hundred years people have been disconnected from nature to a large extent (Katcher and Beck, 1987). Adults and children spend most of their time in front of a screen and technological devices and less time doing outdoor activities (Atchley et al., 2012).
This is something we witness and experience around us every day. We spend most of the day indoors and if we are out, our focus is once again drawn to another screen or technological device. Every time we are in nature, we usually want to dominate and impose our presence there without respecting it. We forget that we are part of it, that we and nature are one. Ourselves and nature are not two separate entities, it’s just one (Welling, 2014).
In her book “Reclaiming the Wild Soul”, Mary Reynolds Thompson notes that we live in a world that dominates nature, which creates in us the desire to dominate everything: other people, and even worse, our spirit. One of her students wrote: “All these internal rules of how I should be are a burden for me, and I feel disconnected from the spontaneous flow inside me.” Our desire to dominate our environment and change it may prevent us from finding our true nature (Thompson, 2014).
It is true that more than 50% of people on earth live in urban areas and that rate is about to rise to 70% by 2050 (Bratman & al., 2015). Our environment plays an important role in the way we think and behave (Atchley & al., 2012). Bearing in mind all the above, we can understand the value of studying the impact of the environment on humans as well as developmenting methods that can reduce the negative effects of disconnection created by technology.
Research that proves the beneficial properties of nature for our body is constantly increasing. For example, according to Rachel and Stephan Kaplan, people who have direct access to the natural environment are healthier than those who do not. Longer-term, indirect effects include an increased level of satisfaction with their home, work and their life as a whole (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989).
According to Attention Restoration Theory (ART) developed by Kaplan in 1980, people focus better when they spend time in nature or even when they are watching scenes from nature (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989).
A research based on the above theory (ART) confirmed the fact that the brain’s cognitive function is increased in the natural environment. Marc Berman and his colleagues at the University of Michigan found that students walking in a park performed better on a memory test than other students walking in the city streets (Berman & al., 2008).
In another research, Kaplan and Kaplan concluded that it is not necessary to run in the woods to benefit from nature. Just taking a look at nature through the window could be enough. According to their findings, employees who viewed nature from their offices had a more constructive view of their work, better health and satisfaction from their life (Kaplan & al., 1998).
Frances Kuo has dedicated her life to studying the impact of the natural environment on people, and together with her colleague William Sullivan they founded the Human-Environment Research Laboratory (HERL). Her research included children who were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). After performing some tests, it was found that the children who took a walk in a park for 20 minutes felt much more relaxed than the children who walked in an urban environment (Taylor & Kuo, 2009).
In another study, Bratman and his colleagues found that 90 minutes of walking in nature may reduce thinking about the same things again and again (also known as repetitive negative thoughts) by reducing the function of a specific part of the brain associated with mental illness. Researchers have found that this doesn’t happen when someone is walking in the city (Bratman & al., 2015).
Bratman, together with a different scientific team, found that nature can also affect cognitive function. Compared to walking in an urban environment, walking in nature had an effective emotional effect by reducing stress and repetitive thoughts; it also helped to maintain these effects. Moreover, it had a positive cognitive effect by enhancing working memory, which aids learning (Bratman et al., 2015).
In their research, Ruth Ann Atchley, David L. Strayer and Paul Atchley found that reconnecting with nature and at the same time disconnecting from technology can help solve problems in a creative way. They also believe that technology and noise pollution in urban areas distract us and reduce our focus. The participants walked in nature carrying their backpacks for four days and were not allowed to use any technological devices. According to the results, when asked to solve complex problems that required creativity their performance increased by 50%.
Therefore, wandering and exploring in nature seems to be related to the disconnection from technology. Tristan Gooley, author of “How to Connect with Nature”, says: “When we are at home, brain-neutral activities such as watching TV or checking out the social media news may be more enticing than putting on our coats and going out. However, after 10 minutes out in the fresh air, these electronic brain-traps lose their impact.”
How can all the above be combined with writing?
Thompson insists that technology adds yet another layer of noise to our already busy lives, which can keep us away from our intuition and the language of non-human beings, while silence creates space within us, empties us (Thompson, 2014).
In her book “Writing Wild”, Tina Welling says that many of us behave like tourists in our own lives. We are constantly looking for something out there, when everything is inside us (Welling, 2014). She also claims that we often believe that nature is a place to rest. However, few of us know that we can also rejuvenate (Welling, 2014) and relax. Relaxation, rejuvenation, focus, silence, self analysis and problem solving are basic components of creative expression. When the process of creation is combined with nature, the beneficial effects are even greater.
Writing is one of the most common creative activities. In the psychology field that is called therapeutic or expressive writing is used as a means of expressing emotions and thoughts. In other words, paper can become our mirror and lead us to self-knowledge and personal development. According to Welling, we experience the power of language when writing in our diaries. Ourselves develop and shine in the light of our attention. We expand, awaken and become the person we are looking for in other people. Words have the power to change us.
When the writing process takes place in the natural environment, there are many more benefits for the writer than writing in an office, looking only at a computer screen.
Welling claims that the need for creation is something peculiar. Creative people need nature, a contact with their authentic self. The body is the link between the creative mind and nature (Welling, 2014). The sensory awakening that we experience in nature increases creativity. Sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, they all finely tuned, become sharper and return to primitive levels.
In the natural environment, time expands, so we have the opportunity to observe. Observation, whether it is related to the outside or the interior world, is an essential component of writing. Thompson points out that we have lost the ability to imagine beyond the predetermined pattern we have learned from others. We forgot the power of our own imagination without the boundaries of urban conventions (Thompson, 2014).
The simplicity of the natural environment empties our mind and helps us see things more clearly from a new, different perspective. The silence and serenity of nature help us to focus on our inner world and hear our inner voice. They help us pay attention to the mental, spiritual and physical messages that otherwise would be ignored in our busy daily routine.
In nature, we reveal ourselves completely, without the corruptions of the external environment. In the natural environment, we can be our true self no matter what our position or role is. In nature, we have the ability to accept and emphasize our uniqueness, to find more easily the way which leads to our personal path. We can envisage more clearly our pure self and discover aspects that we had either forgotten or neglected or did not know they even existed.
Nature can be the greatest teacher. In order to reap its rewards one must immerse themselves in it completely.
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