Written by Active Minds on Wednesday the 21st of May 2014.
It’s spring, a time when most of us will be delighting in the outdoors again after a winter of hibernating. But what about those who are limited to being indoors?
It was listening to Patrick Clark of Dementia Adventure talk at the Care Show in Bournemouth this year on the benefits of nature walks, closely followed by a chat with Barry Wheelock of Calmer by Nature that got me thinking about how important nature is for our health and wellbeing.
“Studying the impact of the natural world on the brain is actually a scandalously new idea” – Richard Louv (Author of 2008 bestseller, Last Child in the Woods)
A few weeks after the care show I was then alerted to a project involving Alzheimer’s Australia Victoria and game developers Opaque Multimedia. These two rather surprising collaborators are attempting to raise $90,000 on an Australian kick-starter style website called Pozible, for ‘A virtual forest for dementia’. Their pitch on the site states ‘Imagine if every care facility or private care home were to have a virtual reality games room through the use of televisions and standard game consoles – it is the future we can create together.’
The idea is that the proposed virtual forest, by providing a series of interactions within a cyberspace in which seasonal and climatic changes take place, will stimulate the senses, whilst basic body movements such as a sway of arms or claps of hands can change aspects of the virtual scene and help to keep the body active. This interactive nature trail is made possible by an intuitive system that is also used by the games console the XBOX ONE.
Barry (Calmer by Nature) said to me, “You know, research shows that even a painted wall mural depicting nature can have a positive effect on mood and well-being.”
This was an eye-opener for me; that nature may not necessarily only have to be experienced in a multi-sensory way to have a positive impact on a person’s well-being.
Investigating this a little further, I found that there are a series of American studies that show that when people look at pictures of nature their haemoglobin levels drop in their prefrontal cortexes. Or, in terms you and I can understand a little better, what this essentially means is that ‘the home base of executive function has switched a few lights off’. This effect is also seen in the brains of Tibetan monks who appear to ‘dim their brain wattage’ through meditation. Instead, the brain activity ‘switched off’ in the prefrontal cortex is sent to two other areas of the brain that are associated with emotion, pleasure and empathy (Florence Williams, Outside Online).
Barry, who seems to spend a great deal of his time out and about filming the natural world in all its glory for his Calmer by Nature DVDs, has tapped into something we all need. Described by researcher Rachel Kaplan (1989) as ‘soft fascination’ or ‘soft focus’, it’s this mild meditative state that we might find ourselves in when we do something like gaze at passing clouds (and letting our mind wander), that allows us to rest our mind function, having a restorative effect on our mental and physical health.
From ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ by
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Research by Ulrich & Gilpin (2003) suggests that representations of nature or nature ‘art’ will enhance restorative wellbeing if it contains images of slowly moving water, verdant foliage, flowers, foreground special openness, park-life or savannah-like properties and birds or other unthreatening wildlife. They also issued guidelines for art selection and art placement.
“Green-spaces” says Mark Kinver in a BBC News article (quoting Sue Holden, CEO of The Woodland Trust), “can save the NHS billions”.
“It has been calculated…that £2.1bn of healthcare costs could be saved if everyone had access to green spaces.”
According to Kinver’s article, Holden went on to explain her claim by saying that the link between “healthy woods and healthy lives” was a “connection that really has to be made much more and much more often”.
And it’s not just the exercise opportunities that these outdoor areas might offer us that help to back her claim, either – as U.S. researcher Rachel Kaplan states, “When you are pursuing a sport you are getting cardiac points but you’re not necessarily getting nature points”.
In Japan, the health benefit of spending time in woodlands has its very own word, shinrinyoku, which means ‘forest bathing’. And it’s in Japan that scientists are looking at what happens to our neurons and cells while we are in nature.
One example is an experiment by Japanese Immunologist, Qing Li (Department of Hygiene and Public Health at Nippon Medical School, Tokyo), that set out to measure the effect of natural forest scents on human immune function. The experiment was conducted using two groups of subjects who were asked to sleep in hotel rooms over series of consecutive nights. One group was sent to sleep in hotel rooms in which stem oil from the common Hinoki cypress tree was vapour-released into the room during sleep whilst the control group slept in rooms in which no aromas were administered. The cypress scent sleepers showed a 20% increase in NK cells (a type of cytotoxic lymphocyte critical to the innate immune system) during their 3-night stay and reportedly felt less fatigued, while the control group, as you can probably already guess, saw almost no changes.
So that all makes sense… And what about the effect of natural light and colour?
“When we speak of nature it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of nature.” Henri Matisse
The colour that comes to mind when we think about nature is more often than not green (although interestingly for the artist Matisse, it was blue). Green is associated with life and growth, as you might imagine, but it is also the most restful of colours and is known for reducing central nervous system activity that has the knock-on effect of calming people down. So even with regards to colour therapy, nature works.
Did you know? That the sensation of a colour depends on the number of vibrations of light ether (for green this is 35 trillion cycles per second). The vibration for each of the colours in the spectrum is constant. It is also related to the minor chords in music. If a frequency is vibrating fast enough, it’s emitted as a sound and if it’s vibrating much faster (an increase of 40 octaves) it will be emitted as a colour of light.
Sacks (2009) is responsible for identifying two non-pharmacological therapies vital for patients with chronic neurological diseases:
It appears, from the research, that we have a biological need for sounds and greenness.
And it appears as though people with advanced dementia who may normally have a very disturbed sense of orientation suddenly find that they know exactly what to do on a visit to a garden and when given gardening activities to participate in.
As Deakin University Australia write in their ‘Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being’ report, ‘the importance of natural environments to those who are experiencing cognitive difficulties and reduced dexterity due to age or illness is illustrated through the launch of 8 Alzheimer’s Memory Gardens in cities across the United States (Brawley 2004).’
I remember how important the garden was for my grandparents when they were both alive. My grandfather was a very keen gardener, and I remember that my grandmother (who had Vascular Dementia for 10 years) would take the crumbs of leftovers from mealtimes out to her bird table, which was situated outside the kitchen window. From her spot at the sink, she could stand washing-up the day’s dishes while watching the pretty birds swoop in for their dinner, with a soft fascination.
When my grandmother finally went into care, the room that seemed to give her most pleasure was that in which she could sit in her chair and look out onto the garden from.
It appears from the research that being out and about in nature is the best way for us to benefit from the positive outcomes it has on our mental health and physical well-being – feeling the grass beneath our feet, a little sunlight and breeze on our skin, smelling the roses, hearing the birds chorus and perhaps indulging in a little cloud gazing as well.
But if getting out in it just isn’t an option, then bringing the outside, in (it appears) can have similarly beneficial and restorative effects.
I told Barry (Calmer by Nature) that if someone was going to place me in front of a window looking out onto a garden, or a screen playing one of his nature DVDs, that I’d also like them to place a tray of turf underneath my bare feet so I might feel like I was outside.
Our chat together had excited my imagination – just think about all the inventive ways in which the goodness of the nature; of the outside, could be brought inside!
And I was reminded of my Mum who came home one day when I was much younger to show me some small soft toy birds she’d bought to give to grandma (who was by that time living in a care home and without her beloved bird table and birds).
“To hang on her wheelchair”, she said. “And if you squeeze them gently,” she gestured with a smile, “they’ll tweet”.