The way in which human exploration and affiliation with life influences mental development is a deep and complicated process that has shaped and supported the thought that contact with nature is both a basic human and universal need. This has influenced the notion of biophilia in which getting a “nature fix” is extraordinarily beneficial to human development, promoting physical health and reducing the stress of urban living.
First popularised by biologist and naturalist Edward O Wilson, biophilia refers to the idea that humans possess an innate biological tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Wilson observed that “As we grow up we learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and as a result our spirit is woven and hope arises… So it is only natural that humans would possess an inborn predisposition to seek connections with nature, forming a love of life and the living world.”
To understand the deep underpinnings of biophilia, and its manifestation in today’s culture, we need to acknowledge that, for the vast majority of human existence, the natural landscape provided the resources necessary for human survival.  The sun provided warmth and light as well as information about time of day. Flowers and seasonal vegetation provided food, materials and medicinal treatments. Large trees provided shelter from the midday sun and places to sleep at night. Rivers provided water for drinking and bathing.
In our society, which is becoming increasingly densely populated and in which large numbers of people live in urban areas, natural surroundings are no longer an obvious component of the direct living environment. Technically we live in an age that is amazing and so advanced but more and more people are finding themselves feelings out of touch, lost or unmotivated in their way of life.
Nature offers one of the most reliable boosts to our mental and physical wellbeing.
|Memory||Students at the University of Michigan were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum and the other half took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned and did the test again, those who had walked among trees did almost 20% percent better than the first time. The ones who had taken in city sights instead did not consistently improve.|
|Mood||One study found that walks in the forest were specifically associated with decreased levels of anxiety and bad moods, and another found that outdoor walks could be "useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments" for major depressive disorder.|
|Attention defecit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)||Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign showed that children diagnosed with ADD/ADHD concentrate better and have a general reduction of symptoms after spending time in nature. This dose of green doesn't need to be a major excursion; benefits have been seen in a simple walk down a tree-lined street.|
One study found that students sent into the forest for two nights had lower levels of cortisol (a hormone often used as a marker for stress) than those who spent that time in the city.
In another study, researchers found a decrease in both heart rate and levels of cortisol in subjects in the forest when compared to those in the city. "Stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy" researchers concluded.
A study indicated that outdoor activities, such as horticulture, improves mood state and stress and therefore are an effective component of cardiac rehabilitation.
|Inflammation||Elderly patients who had been sent on a weeklong trip into the forest showed reduced signs of inflammation as well as some indications that the woodsy jaunt had a positive effect on their hypertension.|
|Immunity||Forest bathing has been reported to increase natural killer (NK) cell activity and intracellular anticancer proteins, therefore suggesting the beneficial effects of nature on the immune system and its cancer preventative potential.|
Incorporating biophilia into the built environment
Using knowledge of our affinity for nature, adapted and refined over millions of years, we can generate experiences of health and wellness through the environments we create.
An area of research has emerged, which focuses on the integration of biophilic features into our surroundings through the intersection of architecture, nature and neuroscience into organisational wellbeing strategies.
Biophilic environments have important implications for healing: there is evidence suggesting that nature views expedite healing after surgery. In this experiment, half of patients stayed in rooms with a view of trees and the other half had a view of a brick wall. Patients with a nature view spent less days in the hospital, used less pain killers and reported a more positive overall recovery experience.
Researchers have found that having a window with a nature view resulted in a 1.6 times faster heart rate recovery from low level stress (similar to the amount experienced working in an office), compared to seeing a nature view on a plasma screen or no view at all. Because viewing scenes of nature stimulates more of the visual cortex than non-nature scenes, more pleasure receptors are activated which leads to a faster stress recovery.
The body of evidence amassed by researchers is proving that nature is not just plain and simple wilderness, but that it is good for us and has short- and long-term mental and physical benefits. Although investigations into the benefits of biophilia for individual wellbeing is relatively new, there is clearly mounting evidence supporting the importance that time spent in nature, as well as biophilic design, can have a positive impact, from reducing anxiety and stress to improving quality of respite from work, therefore increasing levels of self-reported wellbeing.
- Heerwagen J. Biophilia, health, and well-being. VIewed 28 August 2017, https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/gtr/gtr-nrs-p-39papers/04-heerwagen-p-39.pdf
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