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The Nature Principle



[The following excerpt was taken from the article, “Get Your Mind Dirty,” By Richard Louv, which appeared in the Natural Intelligence section in the  June 2011 issue of Outside Magazine.  (Empahsis added) ]:


In 2005, the author [Richard Louv] introduced us to the idea of childhood nature-deficit disorder. With The Nature Principle, he's back with a prescription for adults.


Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan began foundational work in the study of nature's healing effect on the mind in the 1970s. Findings from their nine-year study for the U.S. Forest Service and later research suggested that contact with nature can assist with recovery from mental fatigue and can help restore attention. It can also help reboot the brain's ability to think. The Kaplans and their team followed participants in an Outward Bound–like program, which took people into the wilderness for up to two weeks. During these treks or afterwards, subjects reported experiencing a sense of peace and an ability to think more clearly; they also reported that just being in nature was more restorative than the physical activities, like rock climbing, for which such programs are mainly known.

Over time the Kaplans developed their theory of directed-attention fatigue. Paying conscious attention to something demands voluntary effort, they found, which can erode mental effectiveness and get in the way of forming abstract long-term goals. "A number of symptoms are commonly attributed to this fatigue," Stephen Kaplan and his colleague Raymond De Young wrote in 2002. "Irritability and impulsivity that results in regrettable choices, impatience that has us making ill-formed decisions, and distractibility that allows the immediate environment to have a magnified effect on our behavioral choices."

The Kaplans hypothesize that the best antidote to such fatigue is involuntary attention, a kind of "fascination," which occurs when we are in an environment that fulfills certain criteria: for instance, the setting must transport the person away from their day-to-day routine and allow the opportunity to explore. Furthermore, they found, the natural world is a particularly effective place for the human brain to overcome mental fatigue.

One reason for this might be right beneath our feet. A study conducted by Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks at the Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, found that a common soil bacterium given to mice helped them navigate a maze twice as fast. The natural bacterium in question, Mycobacterium vaccae, is usually ingested or inhaled when people spend time in nature. The effect wore off in a few weeks, but, Matthews said, the research suggests that the M. vaccae we come in contact with all the time in nature may "play a role" in learning in mammals. Smart pill, meet smart bug.

Taking this even further, can time in nature nurture genius itself? Creative genius is not the accumulation of knowledge; it's the ability to see patterns in the universe, to detect hidden links between what is and what could be.

When public-radio commentator John Hockenberry reported in 2008 on research at the University of Michigan that indicated greater mental acuity after a nature walk, he pointed out that Albert Einstein and the mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel, "two of the most brilliant people who ever walked the face of the earth, used to famously, every single day, take walks in the woods on the Princeton campus."


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