Disclaimer: There are no photos here. Yes, I know, this website has the word “photography” in the title. I’m allowed to digress.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the deck of my boat enjoying a cold beer, watching ducks dive below the water in search of food right off my bow, and noting the sky change hues as the sun settles behind some low, thin cumulus clouds. This is my new routine on days that I’m not working or when I’m home from work before dark, as I finish out my last eight months of my abandoned career flying fighter jets.
I just finished reading the December issue of Outside magazine. The headline on the cover was “This is your brain on nature”. It immediately caught my attention.
During my year contemplating whether or not I wanted to leave my job and go live on a sailboat, I weighed a lot of arguments for both scenarios.
But the one recurring theme that kept coming back was that when I’m out in nature – backpacking, hiking, camping, or on the water – I’m generally happier and feel healthier. When I’m working long busy days on base, I’m generally stressed, irritable, and tired, despite my love for the job.
Which “feeling” would you rather have as the rule and not the exception? I didn’t know the science behind it or why I felt that way, but I just knew through experience that this concept was undeniable. I knew where I wanted to be and made my decision.
Then as I was getting closer to making my boat my home, I read a short article in the June issue of Outside. It was written by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods (where he introduces the term nature-deficit disorder), and was about his follow-up book The Nature Principle. In summary, he showed through science that nature, even in small doses, can be beneficial to our physical and psychological health. We can put all the drugs we want into our bodies and gamble with the long-term side effects, but the one proven drug in use for millennia is nature. And now the current issue of the magazine explores the topic a little more.
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols is profiled in the feature. He wants to preserve and save the ocean – but not by inundating the public with numbers about rising ocean temperatures and decreasing fish & mammal populations. That doesn’t do anything. Instead, he wants to use the power of the human brain and start studies in the new field of “neuro-conservation”.
Studies throughout the previous decades have already shown how nature can benefit our health and well-being. It can increase our attention span and help us focus. It increases our memory and one study has shown a 20% improvement in the ability to recall numbers when exposed to nature.
In another study, researchers found that office workers with views of a natural environment have lower levels of stress, fewer job-related maladies, and overall more job satisfaction than those workers who stare at the concrete jungle every day.
In yet another study, subjects exposed to traumatic events recovered quicker when shown natural scenes versus those shown urban scenes.
A more recent study has shown that a few days in the woods increased frontal lobe activity by 40%; the frontal lobe is where all of our creativity comes from.
Nichols is attempting to tie these concepts into our feelings about the ocean. He wants you to understand what’s going on in your head; for you to understand why the ocean is good for you and why you generally feel better when you’re around it. Hopefully, in the long term, more and more people will realize that conservation is something to be taken seriously – not because of all the bad news shoved in your face, but because science has proven why nothing calms us more than being around the sea and in nature.
I haven’t taken my boat out much yet, mostly because I don’t have enough time off from work to take it very far, or I’m working on projects to make it home. But I have noticed a better ability to focus, a better memory, more creativity, and a better mood either sitting in the dock or going for a quick daysail. It’s bringing back feelings I felt as a child when I grew up near the ocean, and I hope science can help explain it to everyone someday. I know it sounds touchy-feely new age, but I think it goes more to the core of who we are as humans.
Support Nichols’ work here: http://100blueangels.org/
Richard Louv’s June Outside article is here: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/media/books/Get-Your-Mind-Dirty.html?page=all