Nature Needed – Mental Health and Human Habitats

Nature Needed – Mental Health and Human Habitats

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Urban environments can drain our mental resources with constant and urgent stimuli. Paying attention to nature seems to reboot, restore and refresh our ability to pay attention and deal with stress.

Virtual pets, electronic communication and urban landscapes…living in a technological world rather than a natural one can have negative impacts on our mental and physical health, the health of a community, culture and ultimately, the planet.

“We are a technological species, but we also need a deep connection with nature in our lives,” says Peter Kahn, a developmental psychologist. (Science Daily, April 2009)

The biophilia hypothesis is nothing new. Biophilia (love of life) refers to the inherent need that humans have to connect with living things and living processes.

“The human need for nature is linked to the influence of the natural world on our emotional, aesthetic, cognitive and spiritual development; it is not restricted to our material exploitation of nature,” asserts Ross Chapman, who had hoped that this need could be exploited to better nature conservancy. (Chapman, 2002)

Frances (Ming) Kuo, director of the Urbana-Champaign’s Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, has been involved in a number of revealing studies about the present disconnect from the natural world.

Because we have evolved to thrive in natural surroundings, Kuo theorizes, nature is inherently interesting and revitalizing to us.

Urban environments, on the other hand, drain our mental resources with constant and urgent stimuli. Paying attention to nature seems to reboot, restore and refresh our ability to pay attention and deal with stress, says Kuo.

Ecotherapy, the restoration of health through contact with nature, is the subject of other research published in the British Medical Journal. Scientists found that small animals such as squirrels and owls can be used therapeutically with children suffering from emotional or behavioral problems.

Researchers also document that being involved in conservation projects helps physical and mental health. Subjects make social connections as well as feeling part of a higher purpose and interrelated system.

Kuo and her colleagues have found that humans in highly urban housing break down just as other animals deprived of their natural habitat. Their social, psychological and physical patterns degrade.

“What you see is increases in aggression, you see disrupted parenting patterns, their social hierarchies are disrupted.” (Science Daily, February, 2009)

Kuo and her colleagues have studied how “green space” or the “green effect” influences those in housing developments devoid of nature. They found that barren landscapes resulted in “decreased civility, less supervision of children, more illegal activity, aggression, property crime, loitering, graffiti and litter” than identical housing units with some degree of grass and trees.

“Roughly 7 percent of the variation in crime that can’t be accounted for by other factors can be accounted for by the number of trees,” Kuo says. “We might call some of that ‘soiling the nest,’ which is not healthy. No organisms do that when they’re in good shape.” (Science Daily, February, 2009)

Kuo says that reduced access to nature seems to produce poor attention, cognitive ability and impulse control while any access to green space results in fewer conflicts, less procrastination on major life goals such as jobs and new homes and creates a more resilient and resourceful outlook on life.

Families are stronger, people live longer and college kids perform better on cognitive tests when nature is accessible.

In two studies of children with ADHD, Kuo found that afflicted children were able to concentrate better and experienced less negative symptoms after outdoor activities in natural settings. The “green effect” was comparable to the effects of ADHD medication.

A Japanese study found that adults lived longer if their homes were within walking distance of a park or other green space and that the green effect was independent of their social or economic status.

A study in the United Kingdom found that health differences between the wealthy and the poor disappeared when green areas were factored in.

In Indianapolis, research finds that children are less overweight or obese in greener neighborhoods.

Kuo points out that those living in inner-city developments “have fatiguing lives, and not particularly rejuvenating home circumstances. They’re just more likely to be at the end of their rope on any given day.”(Thompson, 2009)

The restorative effect of nature “allows us to be our best selves, so we are able to inhibit impulses that we want to be able to inhibit; we can take the long view of things; we can think better.” (Thompson, 2009)

More than half the population of the world now lives in urban environments rather than rural neighborhoods and the potential impact is exponential.

“When you take the individual effects,” says Kuo, “and then you magnify it by the fact that people around you share that same environment, you can actually imagine that they’re really, really significant effects.”(Thompson, 2009)

Bigger Implications

 “Videophilia” is a preference for TV, video games and Internet use. A study funded by the Nature Conservancy found that videophilia correlates with a decline in national park visits. The US and Japan are the most “videophilic” societies today but other nations are not far behind.

A study done by University of Washington psychologists found that people could recover from stress significantly more by looking at an actual view of nature rather than seeing the same view on a real-time, high-definition plasma screen.

Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradiac, authors of the Nature-Conservancy-funded study, say that “the time children spend in nature determines their environmental awareness as adults.” (, 2009)

Even with awareness of global warming and climate change, the authors warn that the lack of true nature encounters could mean that people could come to care less and less about the environment, that “if people stop caring about nature, that would be the greatest environmental threat of all.” (, 2009)

Peter Kahn, leader of the University of Washington research, fears what he calls “generational amnesia.”

“The larger concern is that technological nature [viewing the outdoors through TV and playing with robo-pets instead of real ones] will shift the baseline of what people perceive as the full human experience of nature, and that it will contribute to what we call environmental generational amnesia.” (Science Daily, April 2009)

Kahn fears that people measure environmental degradation against a norm that is created during their childhood. Each generation has lesser view and understanding of the natural world than their forefathers.

Even environmentalist sympathizers don’t have a clear sense of the amount of degradation that has occurred, Kahn says. “They see the degradation, but they don’t recognize their own experience is diminished. How many people today feel a loss such as the damming of the Columbia River compared to a wild Columbia river? A lot of us have no concept of a wild river and don’t feel a loss.”(Science Daily , April 2009)

Kahn also says “Poor air quality is a good example of physical degradation. We can choke on the air, and some people suffer asthma, but we tend to think that’s a pretty normal part of the human condition.” (Science Daily, April, 2009)

Kahn worries that soon technological nature will be “good enough,” and that “across generations what will happen is that the good enough will become the good. If we don’t change course, it will impoverish us as a species.”(Science Daily, April, 2009) 



Chapman, Ross (2002): “Exploiting the Human Need for Nature for Successful Protected Area Management”. The George Wright Forum

Staff writer (2009): “Conservation Science: Do People Still Care About Nature? (Interview with Nature Conservancy study authors Oliver Pergrams and Patricia Zaradic)”.

Staff writer, (2005): “Getting Close to Nature is Good for You”. Adapted from British Medical Journal by Science Daily

Staff writer (April 2009): “Humans May Be Losers if Technological Nature Replaces the Real Thing, Psychologists Warn”. Adapted by materials from the University of Washington

Staff writer, (February 2009): “Science Suggest Access to Nature is Essential to Human Health”. Adapted form University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study by Science Daily

Staff writer (2007): “There’s Much More to a Walk in the Park”. Adapted from University of Sheffield study by Science Daily

Thompson, Andrea (2009): “Got Nature? Why You Need to Get Out”. Live


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