’S’ for savannah and snake…..some science around green space, walking and thinking

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Gentle hills, woods and water are consistently named as favourite landscape features. Looking down from the Monsal Trail at the River Wye

I’ve made much of the fact that walking helps us think. And you might justifiably say that I would say that, wouldn’t I…I am a self confessed walking junkie after all. It could all be down to some time away from the office, or the fact that I just like it – who doesn’t feel better doing something they love?

But there is more to it than that. Various scientists with various different angles have been exploring how exercise, walking and being in green space affects our thinking.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, just 30 minutes of moderate exercise (taken as a whole or broken down into bits) 5 times a week can improve the mood, help you sleep, focus the mind, calm you down, help you to feel more resilient in the face of life’s ups and downs and even address mild cases of depression and anxiety. What’s not to love?

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What’s so special about green space? Somewhere near the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire

And green space? A recent scientific enquiry by a Finnish research team found that we do indeed think more clearly, are more focused, more creative, calmer and energetic in natural landscapes. They found that just 15 minutes in nature saw a marked response, and that 45 minutes was even better. ‘Five hours a month’ in nature is what they suggest to get your brain firing on all cylinders. What’s not to love even more?

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A naturally enticing view? Grassland, trees, gentle hills. Actually that’s not a gentle hill, it’s Kinderscout. But it looks more gentle than it is from a distance.

But why would nature helps us think? Around three and a half to seven million years ago – scientists debate the precise timing- our ancient ancestors climbed down out of the trees and made their first tentative steps on the Savannah. And there they wandered for a very long time – mostly in East Africa. We’ve only been in farms and settlements for the last 10,000 years, and urban environments for even less. It’s likely that we are genetically programmed in some way to to function optimally in nature. Environmental psychologists have adopted the term Biophilia to describe this.

Apparently this shows up in many different ways. One of the is that humans simply like these environments, and they consistently name these kinds of features when asked to identify their favourite kind of landscape. And another is that we are especially sensitive to snake patterns and movements – it’s been proved that we spot and respond more readily to these kinds of signs than we do to others. Another is that being in nature has been shown to quickly lower blood pressure and reduce other physical signs of stress – things that happen without our consciously thinking about it. This theory, which glories in the name Psychophysiological Stress Reduction Theory, suggests that those of our ancestors that were able to use nature to recover from stressful survival situations – hunting, fighting, scavenging – lived to pass their DNA onto their children and eventually onto us. Not so much survival of the fittest, but survival of the nature lover, which turns that particular cliché on its head in quite a pleasing way.

I’m sure it’s unscientific to have favourite theories, but the one coming up has a special place in my heart and walking boots. There’s something about the way that the rhythm of walking combined with the gentle attractions of weather, trees, view and wildlife that settles the mind but allows it to roam freely as well. This is one of the reasons that for me, walking and thinking are so comfortably connected. It is a fundamentally restorative process.

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Looking across to Kerridge Ridge, the tower blocks of Manchester in the distance

So, meet Attention Restoration Theory, which says that normal brain function lies somehow in the balance between the things we need to make ourselves focus on – often a tiring task – and the interesting things around that easily draw our attention. Survival meant paying attention when you needed to, and those of our ancestors that were able to use nature to restore their attention to predators or pitfalls became our ancient mothers and fathers.

The evidence continues to mount – most often gathered and highlighted by agencies that are keen to underline the value of our natural assets – The Forestry Commission, Natural England, The National Gardens Scheme and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds amongst others. There are even pilot studies around the country exploring the prescribing of green space for certain physical and mental conditions. I should say though, in the spirit of scientific openness, that although the data is good, most of the surveys and many of the studies are commissioned or conducted by enthusiasts. And there’s a need for long term, carefully designed studies measuring practical outcomes (like long term relief from depression for example), and for understanding how personal preference and history plays out.

So, it’s not just a matter of perception or preference. And although it’s an emerging field, science bears this out. The act of walking in nature does make us think and feel better, and we can bring that to bear on the stuff we need to sort out and the things that we want to achieve. This is what ‘Natural Thinking’ is all about. If you bring two things that help you think – coaching and walking – together in green enironments, you get the best of both and maybe a little bit more.

Physical Activity and Mental Health, The Royal College of Psychiatrists

Nature Fix, Florence Williams, 2017

With Nature In Mind, Andy McGeeney, 2016

Gardens and Health: Implications for Policy and Practice. A report commissioned by the National Gardens Scheme and conducted on behalf of the Kings Fund, an independent charity and thinktank working to improve healthcare in England. David Bluck, 2016

The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment in The Journal of Environmental Psychology, 38, 2014, p1-9. Tyrväinen, Liisa et al

Mindfulness Practice in Woods and Forests: An Evidence Review. A report for the Mersey Forest, Forest Research. Bianca Ambrose-Oji, 2013

Natural Thinking, Investigating the Links between the Natural Environment, Biodiversity and Mental Health.William Bird, 2007

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