Your Brain on Nature Vs. Life in a Box




Why nature? I’ll admit it, I used to be skeptical of nature — not that I didn’t enjoy nature, but I wasn’t satisfyingly convinced that nature was necessary. I always appreciated it, but I was stuck in some postmodern relativist loop where everything was too subjective to trust. Despite my own intuitions, I also wasn’t convinced by anecdotes and claims that the experience of nature was anything more than some granola induced romanticized new age woo. I remain anti-granola (quite literally), but I was wrong about nature.

People sometimes lob anemic criticisms at me for mentioning Zerzan, and that’s probably rooted in some kind of fair notion that he’s perceived as too readily jumping the is-ought gap. It seems pretty common for primitivist theorists to provide a few positive historical and anthropological examples, set them against some negative relatively modern examples, and argue that the primitive way was the better way. That’s somewhat of a problem logically, but it’s easily bridged by adding one clause between the examples (the is) and the conclusion (the ought). I’m not arguing for Zerzan’s primitivism, but I am arguing that his and similar ideas should be on the table for consideration, and that we dismiss them at our own risk.

The clause I suggest bridges the gap between the is of our hunter-gatherer evolution, and the ought of increasing our connection with nature, is the concept of Nature relatedness (NR). I’m only providing two references here, and both with the same lead author, but the references they contain build a robust picture and framework of the psychology itself, and the associated evolutionary context. Alternatively, I can also recommend the review in the first couple chapters of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.

(all emphasis that follows is mine)

Article One

One of my favorite things about this article is that it’s an article about nature and references a paper by C. H. Feral. Three studies are discussed examining the subjective well-being of individuals and how nature has the potential to change these feelings. Positive correlations were found in positive affect, vitality, autonomy, personal growth and purpose (meaning) in life, and overall life satisfaction.

Nature relatedness (NR) describes the affective, cognitive, and experiential aspects of human–nature relationships. Evidence from three studies suggests that individual differences in NR are associated with differences in well-being. In study 1, we explore associations between NR and a variety of well-being indicators, and use multiple regression analyses to demonstrate the unique relationship of NR with well-being, while controlling for other environmental measures. We replicate well-being correlates with a sample of business people in Study 2. In study 3, we explore the influence of environmental education on NR and well-being, and find that changes in NR mediate the relationship between environmental education and changes in vitality. We discuss the potential for interventions to improve psychological health and promote environmental behaviour. Nisbet, et al (2011)

“We suggest that the benefits of a strong connection with nature permeate into broad areas of life, and provide evidence consistent with this idea… NR also predicted well-being better than other environmental measures, and with environmental education people maintained their sense of connection with nature and experienced greater vitality over time. The results… support the notion that NR—the affective, cognitive, and experiential connection with the natural world—may contribute to psychological health…” Nisbet, et al (2011)

Article Two

I’ve read this paper a zillion times, and written about it elsewhere, but I still can’t put it any better than the authors introductory paragraph(s):

People habitually neglect the natural environment, yet contact with nature has considerable benefits. Research has shown that contact with nature can restore  attentional resources , improve  concentration in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, speed recovery from illness, and reduce stress; it may even reduce mortality risk (Mitchell & Popham, 2008). Psychologists often explain these findings by drawing on sociobiologist E. O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that because humans evolved in natural environments and have lived separate from nature only relatively recently in their evolutionary history, people possess an innate need to affiliate with other living things. Although researchers cannot directly test the evolutionary origins of an affinity for natural environments, people’s fondness for natural scenery and the popularity of outdoor activities, zoos, gardening, and pets are evidence of biophilia. Nature can also be a source of happiness. Humans evolved in natural environments and still seem to thrive in them.

Modern lifestyles, however, may erode people’s connection with nature, leaving them unaware of nature’s potential benefits. By limiting their contact with nature, people fail to maximize the advantages it offers for cognition and well-being.

That pretty much sums up my general thinking on the matter. It’s all there… psychology… evolution… nature… scientific equivocations… everything.

Modern lifestyles disconnect people from nature, and this may have adverse consequences for the well-being of both humans and the environment. In two experiments, we found that although outdoor walks in nearby nature made participants much happier than indoor walks did, participants made affective forecasting errors, such that they systematically underestimated nature’s hedonic benefit. The pleasant moods experienced on outdoor nature walks facilitated a subjective sense of connection with nature, a construct strongly linked with concern for the environment and environmentally sustainable behavior. To the extent that affective forecasts determine choices, our findings suggest that people fail to maximize their time in nearby nature and thus miss opportunities to increase their happiness and relatedness to nature. Our findings suggest a happy path to sustainability, whereby contact with nature fosters individual happiness and environmentally responsible behavior. Nisbet & Zelenski (2011)


Contact with nature has clear benefits for humans….this effect is a window to a larger process in which human disconnection from nature is linked to environmental destruction and suboptimal well-being… At the individual level, we strongly recommend more contact with nearby nature: It will likely make you (and the planet) happier than you think. Nisbet & Zelenski (2011)

The research mentioned here measures individual exposure and relationship to nature on very limited levels, and is only the tip of the iceberg. Humans are wild animals, and living in boxes is not optimal for health… whether physical or mental.

Is a push-up in your living room the same as a push-up in the forest? Is a sprint down the street in front of your gym the same as a sprint in that perfect sand just above the waterline as the tide is going out?

If you found this article at all interesting, please consider backing my expedition documentary project – at the end of Day (2 of 22) we were already at 34% funding. The entire goal is to show people how to reconnect with nature in a major way, and some of the rewards (Hyperlithic in particular), are also directly related to this topic. Even if you can’t back the project financially, please share this post — even if you think it’s marginally interesting. :)

Thank you! I welcome your thoughts below.