Your Brain on Nature: Introduction

All of us can reap extraordinary benefits by connecting – or reconnecting – with nature but we now live now in a society more disconnected from nature than ever before. While we sense this profound loss, we are now equipped with the tools and the empirical science to address the issue. The implications are massive at all levels.  We have the opportunity to apply nature-smart solutions to confidently face the future in a more meaningful, effective and balanced direction. This is my personal passion and my invitation to each of you to join me in the awesome quest to tap into the power of nature.

The following provides a somewhat deeper introduction to the topic . It is an amalgamation of introductions from several of the books I’ve found most informative on the subject: “Your Brain on Nature” (Eva Selhub, MD and Alan Logan, ND), “The Nature Principle” (Richard Louv), and “The Nature Fix” (Florence Williams).


Humanity’s relationship with nature, a never-dull affair based on both fear and attraction, spans more than 2 million years. Our ancestors grew to understand the natural landscape, figuring out over time their ability to secure the factors that sustained life and minimized the multiple threats to it. They grew to respect nature, balancing the understanding that nature can bite, sting, poison, maim, and kill, with an awe and appreciation of what the natural world could offer to promote health of mind and body.

Throughout the ages and across cultures, philosophers, poets, nature writers, and nature enthusiasts have extolled the mentally rejuvenating and uplifting power of nature. But what of the science? To what extent is the 2-million-year relationship with the natural environment imprinted in our neurons, and to what extent does nature immersion and deprivation work for and against the individual?

In our contemporary age of science and technology, researchers have finally turned their attention toward the evaluation of these enthusiastic claims related to the medical aspects of nature. What started as a trickle of scientific inquiry in the 1970’s has transformed into a formable body of research, with many of the most startling research findings coming within just the last few years. Scientific researchers are investigating nature’s role in mental health at a time when humans are more distanced from the natural world than ever before, an environmental context in which humans are increasingly becoming part of the machine. Humans have long demonstrated an ability to use technology to conquer, control, and adapt to our natural environments. Our earliest ancestors used fire and crafted cutting and hunting tools, clothing and shelters. Since then, technology and man’s mastery over the natural environment have developed at an astonishing rate. As far back as a century ago, writers were concerned that industrialization had placed a machine in the garden, one capable of dramatically changing our natural world. Today, not only has the machine taken over the garden but there are also legitimate fears that there is now only a bit of the garden left within the machine.

This should be of great concern: natural environments offer unbelievable benefits for our health. As neuroscience develops at a rapid pace, researchers are uncovering functional aspects of the intricate anatomy and physiology of the human brain, allowing them to have a clear picture of the true depths to which environmental factors influence cognitive and mental health. So far, the results suggest that we have completely underestimated the way in which the human brain is influenced by its physical environment.

Undoubtedly, technology has allowed for the strength and global spread of our species, and as such, it has largely escaped meaningful criticism and broad public discourse. But today’s easy access and prolonged exposure to gadgetry is leading to nature deprivation, and what is lost through that might be far more detrimental than what is gained.

Less contact with nature appears to remove a layer of protection against psychological stress and opportunity for cognitive rejuvenation. Japanese research suggests also that nature deprivation may have wide-ranging effects on the immune system. In the big picture, our turn away from nature is associated with less empathy and attraction to nature and, in turn less interest in environmental efforts related to nature. An obvious concern is that a massive withdrawal from nature will immunize us against empathetic views of nature. Sustainability of the planet is not merely about being a good citizen and recycling; it is ultimately about maintaining an intimate relationship with nature.

In an age of rapid environmental, economic, and social transformation, the future will belong to the nature-smart – those individuals, families, businesses and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of nature, and who balance the virtual world with the real.