An Ancient Prescription For Modern Ills

by Anitra Pavlico

There is only one healing force, and that is nature. —Arthur Schopenhauer

The Biophilia Effect: A Scientific and Spiritual Exploration of the Healing Bond Between Humans and Nature, by Austrian biologist Clemens G. Arvay, is a mind-expanding read. It is part of the relatively recent resurgence of interest in incorporating exposure to nature into physical and psychological healing regimens. Until recently, the notion of “taking the cure” by relaxing at a Swiss resort in a natural setting was seen as archaic, thought to have been prescribed only because medicine had not advanced to a point where a “real” treatment could be used. Not that everyone had abandoned the idea: Erich Fromm used the term “biophilia” in his 1973 work The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness to describe “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.” American biologist Edward O. Wilson published Biophilia in 1984, positing genetic bases for humans’ tendency to gravitate to nature. Now scientists en masse are studying nature’s extraordinary healing effects. In Japan, shinrin-yoku–“taking in the forest atmosphere,” or as it is more often translated in the West, “forest bathing”– is officially recognized as a method of preventing disease as well as a supplement to treatment. In 2012, Japanese universities created an independent medical research department called Forest Medicine. Scientists around the world have begun to participate in this research.

Arvay writes that “Plants, like insects, communicate using chemical substances. They send out molecules . . . [that] can definitely be compared with a human language because, just like our words, they carry certain meaning in the world of plants and, therefore, information — a ‘plant vocabulary.’” Plants emit substances called terpenes, secondary plant compounds with almost forty thousand representatives that fulfill numerous functions. For example, plants emit terpenes as a sunscreen (you may be able to see terpenes forming a blue haze above a forest on a hot day). Plants also use terpenes to attract insects or other animals when they need their services, or to warn other plants about pests so that they can mobilize their immune systems. Plants also produce terpenes as a toxin to kill pests or deter predators.

As it turns out, the same terpenes that plants use to strengthen their defenses, also help our immune system boost its defenses. The health benefits of spending time in the woods include an increase in the number of “natural killer cells,” a type of white blood cell; increased activity in natural killer cells for days after time in the woods; elevated levels of anticancer proteins; and lower levels of stress hormones. Studies have also shown that blood pressure decreases and heart-rate variability is more balanced after subjects spend time in nature. Arvay notes that “Your immune system doesn’t only communicate with other organs and systems in your body; it also communicates with the outside world. . . . Forest air is like a healing elixir we inhale.”

Humans have a partly well-grounded reputation for resilience and adaptability. But we expect too much from ourselves with respect to adapting to crowded urban or suburban settings, full of noise, people, asphalt, and car exhaust and numerous other toxins. Roger Ulrich, at the Center for Healthcare Building Research at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, says: “As a remnant of evolution, modern humans might have a biologically prepared readiness to learn and persistently retain certain positive responses to nature but reveal no such preparedness for urban or modern elements and configurations.” Arvay points out that based on the chronological benchmarks of evolution, humans have been living in modern cities for mere milliseconds.

Studies show the following natural elements are proven to be most effective at activating the relax-and-regenerate parts of our brains, as opposed to the fight-or-flight parts:

  • Standing, sparkling water – lakes, ponds
  • Calm flowing water – streams, rivers
  • The sea
  • Flowers, blooming trees, green meadows
  • Gardens with fruits and vegetables
  • Berry bushes
  • Birds and bird songs
  • Trees with sweeping crowns under which you can find cover
  • Clearings or meadows scattered with trees and bushes

What happens to those of us who live in a place where we can’t easily access a forest, open meadow, ocean, stream or river? Many people would have to drive hours to find a forest. The time spent behind the wheel would arguably cancel out the health benefits of the forest. Are we doomed to a life of stress and sickness? It appears not, because even a plant in an office cubicle, or a view of a tree from a hospital bed, has been shown to reduce stress significantly. We may have to get creative to infuse our lives with nature when economic, family, or other circumstances make relocating to the countryside or to a forest village impracticable. I work in a cubicle in Manhattan from which I can barely see buildings outside, much less a tree or a whole forest. I have a few plants and have hung up old pictures from nature calendars. It’s not ideal, but it helps. Recordings of nature sounds may also help to trick the brain–at least, the part that Arvay repeatedly calls our “reptilian brain”–into relaxing. There is little impetus to fight or flee when we hear bird songs. A recent article in Wired further notes the theory that the fractal patterns in plant life stimulate neural activity. (Clive Thompson, “Power Plants,” Oct. 2019.) I can’t explain fractals, but I suppose I recognize and respond to them. When I take a break from staring at the computer screen, I often stare at one of my plants and zone out. When I’m home, I’m fortunate to have a garden to spend time in, alternately working and doing nothing. It’s more relaxing than anything else I do, or don’t do.

With respect to zoning out, far from being a sign of weakness or laziness, it has been shown to increase our capacity for directed attention. William James recognized two forms of attention, directed attention and “fascination.” Fascination, unlike directed attention–which is what we use at work, while driving, and so on–costs no energy, and even increases our mental energy. It is automatic. Researchers Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, professors of environmental psychology at the University of Michigan, have formulated an “attention restoration theory.” Directed attention over time leads to fatigue, agitation, and irritability. The Kaplans have studied the effects of entering a natural setting where fascinated attention is automatic, which allows directed attention a rest that ends up being rejuvenating. Arvay writes: “Nature fascination is the mechanism that triggers and maintains the flow experience in green space. Many people know this feeling from gardening when they are completely absorbed in their activity with the soil and plants. . . . the flow experience is a meditative state.”

As Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “[H]appiness is not something that happens. . . . It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.” Bolstering this theory that happiness is not something that simply happens is Arvay’s insistence that we seek out nature, an affirmative act that may at first feel like an unnecessary inconvenience in our overly busy lives, except perhaps for those lucky few who live on the edge of a forest. Our physical health and mental well-being may depend on it. Arvay discusses the fact that despite scientific advances, “Many ‘lifestyle diseases’ just don’t have an explanation. Approximately 60 percent of the causes of health problems, chronic diseases, and premature death cannot be attributed to clear triggers, such as pathogens, environmental toxins, genetic factors, and so on. Even more complex is the search for causes in mental disorders.” He claims that nature’s impact on our immune system is indispensable for it to function properly. Instead of obsessing over the negative elements of life that are causing us to feel awful–fat, carbs, cholesterol, sugar, technology, driving, social media, job jitters, relationship stress, sedentary lifestyle–which reinforce our reptilian brain’s hyperawareness of perceived dangers and further heightens stress–a focus on adding in healthy habits is a way to “control inner experience” in a positive way. Arvay envisions a new discipline, dovetailing with the recent emergence of psychoneuroimmunology, which examines the influences of our psyche on the immune system and vice versa, which would be called “‘ecopsychoneuroimmunology.’ It would study the highly complex system of psyche, immune system, and nature. These three form a functional network, which must be understood as a whole . . . the separation from nature and its influences would be regarded as an additional factor in the development of diseases and disorders because it would be as if a part of the patient is being ‘cut off’ that is necessary for the functioning of the body.”

I am hoping that my cat Chico benefits from a return to nature. A rescue cat who lived in an apartment for a few years after we adopted him, he has always been skittish and neurotic. Our other two rescues, who go outside, seem healthier and happier than Chico. It took years of coaxing before I could even pet him. After we moved to our house, he expressed no interest in going out. In the last couple of days, however, he has started going outside. We installed a door to the backyard, and he feels less threatened going out this way. Chico seems fascinated, and keeps meowing and rubbing against me, purring–although he may be purring because he’s nervous. I have tried to tell him that the fresh air is good for him. I won’t bother trying to explain terpenes, lower cortisol levels, increased natural killer cell activity, or the flow meditative state. He’s too busy sniffing the air, eating grass, and staring at the impossibly high sky to listen anyway.