Written by: Grace Carter
There is something so lovely, so beckoning, about seeing a far away mountain range. It’s like a promise. There’s always another mountain to climb. Every step is an invitation. I let the magic of the forest guide me, soft voice of the wind whispers through the pines. “Welcome home”, it says. “I’ve missed you,” I reply.
For one reason or another I haven’t gotten out for my regular weekend hikes lately. I know how healthy hiking is for me, both mentally and physically, but life gets busy sometimes; work and other commitments tug all of us in various directions. I really didn’t “have time” to hike on this particular Saturday but I knew that I was going to have a melt down if I didn’t take a little time to myself. So I loaded up my pack and headed up to the high country. My legs and my lungs reminded quickly that I’d been slacking in the exercise department. But with every step I took, with every ragged breath, a few more worries and fears dropped away.
There is a concept in ecology and environmental science called ecosystem services. An ecosystem service is any benefit an ecosystem provides, mainly to humans. Ecosystem services generally fall into four categories: regulating, provisional, supporting, and cultural. Regulating services are the services an ecosystem provides in regulating or mitigating the impact of natural phenomena. Wetlands provide a regulating ecosystem service during hurricanes but mitigating the impacts of a storm surge. Fungus and bacteria perform regulating services in their decomposition of organic stuff. Provisional ecosystem services provide us with natural resources – timber, water, medicinal plants. Supporting services support life on this planet, we’re talking photosynthesis and other biogeochemical cycles. Cultural services are little more difficult to define but play a role in the evolution of a culture and cultural ideas.
In the last few years another category of ecosystem services has begun to take shape: psychological ecosystem services. Anyone who has taken a walk in the woods and felt that sense of calm take hold of their minds and souls understands what psychological ecosystem services are. But scientists like to quantify stuff so we’re starting to see some research studies lately that try to do just that. A research group out of Barcelona, Spain published results in the June edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on “Green Spaces and Cognitive Development in Primary Children”. They looked at kids ages 7 – 10 years old and noted the amount of green space these kids were exposed to near their home, on their way to school, and at school. Their conclusions were that the kids exposed to “more greenness” over the 12-month study had a “beneficial impact on cognitive development”. They attributed it to exposure to natural, green surroundings and possibly to a decrease in air pollution that tends to be associated with green spaces. Putting on my scientific thinking cap, I have several questions about their study regarding their statistical analysis and interpretations, however it’s an interesting study with thought-provoking results.
Another study, led by Stanford PhD student Gregory Bratman, used brain imaging and self-reporting to understand how a walk in nature affects rumination and possible ties to mental illness. His study compared the scan and reporting results from study participants who took a 90-minute walk in an urban setting to those who walked for 90-minutes at a nature reserve. His results were that those who walked at the reserve had decreased neural activity in parts of the brain linked to mental illness and these folks also reported “less rumination”. The sample size of this study is small (39 individuals) and each person was randomly assigned either the nature walk or the urban walk. I would be interested to see results from the same individual after a nature walk and an urban walk. That being said, this too is an interesting study and interesting approach to the research question.
Both of these studies have merit but they both also highlight some of the difficulties in trying to quantify the effects of nature on the human brain and on our general well-being. Even with statistical analyses, brain scans, etc, how do we KNOW, how do we place a hard value on psychological ecosystem services? Why do we want or need to? For a lot of us, just the knowledge that going for a hike will help clear our minds and reduce some of the symptoms of stress is enough. The value in applying methodical research to understanding the relationship between nature and human health lies in how we could apply that knowledge. Imagine a doctor being able to prescribe a walk in the woods just as they would prescribe medication. Imagine corporate wellness programs based on being outside rather than just a gym. Perhaps it would be easier to establish and/or protect urban green belts and parks with more scientific evidence of their benefits.
Another interesting question that comes from all of this is if being in nature is so good for us, what are the consequences of seeing or experiencing ecosystem destruction? I know my reaction is immediate sadness, sometimes anger. I wonder what the long-term effects are? And are there negative psychological impacts that we really aren’t even aware of? Or have we gotten so far removed from nature that we just think “aw, that’s sad” and move on?
In the next article, I’ll dive a little deeper into current research and analytical methods, but for now I think I’ll self-medicate and go for a hike!
More articles by Grace Carter: