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By Natalia Martín Cantero
The advantages for mental and physical health, cognition, the ability to learn and even for productivity of contact with nature are beyond doubt. In 1984, in one of the earliest and most striking studies, researcher Roger Ulrich observed how patients recovering from gallbladder surgery in a Pennsylvania hospital (USA) were discharged the day before, and asked for fewer pain relievers. for the pain, if from the window of their room they saw some trees, compared to those who could only contemplate a wall.
Do trees heal? "If someone gives you a choice between $ 10,000 or ten trees, choose the trees," sums up the article dedicated to the subject by the New Yorker magazine, entitled How trees calm us. The monetary comparison is not in vain. This is what the authors of a recent study carried out in Toronto (Canada) do that shows how neighborhoods with trees are healthier. Specifically, having ten or more trees in the neighborhood improves the perception of health in a way comparable to how it would have an extra $ 10,000 (the perception of health is a subjective factor, but the authors point out that it correlates strongly with objective measures of health). "People have neglected the psychological benefits of the environment for the psyche," says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and director of the study.
To develop this work, the researchers used two large databases. On the one hand, a large registry that includes the municipal trees of the city of Toronto, including their location, species and even diameter and, on the other, the database on the health status of more than 30,000 residents in the Canadian city.
"Nature, vegetation and water have a powerful influence on stress reduction," says Verne José Antonio Corraliza, professor of environmental psychology at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM). “Stress is not bad in life. It allows us to face challenges. The problem is being stressed for a long time. And nature helps us reduce stress time ”.
Not just stress. It also restores attention, of which we are in short supply these days. The city, with its almost infinite source of complaints, saturates our attention span, which is limited, and there comes a time when we become blocked. "It is as if we took out an umbrella to defend ourselves from unwanted stimuli," says Corraliza. "Nature helps us to regain balance. It is a powerful inducer of states of well-being ”.
Lack of access to green spaces is known to result in major psychological problems. But what is the mechanism that makes a visit to the park alter the mood? This is what Gregory Bratman of Stanford University in California set out to study. In a previous study, Bratman had already shown how volunteers who walked in a green area of the campus were more attentive and happy than those who did so, for an equivalent time, in an area with heavy traffic.
In a new study, published in July, Bratman examines the neurological mechanisms that occur when we are in nature. Specifically, it was proposed to study the effect of a walk on the tendency of people to ruminate on things, that mental state in which we do not stop thinking about everything that can go wrong, like a broken record. Those who walked through areas of heavy traffic had not been reassured, and the scans showed more blood flow in the area of the brain associated with the process of excessive rumination. On the contrary, the volunteers who had walked through the fields did show small improvements in their mental health, and the areas of their brain involved in this process registered less activity. “Going out into nature could be an easy and almost immediate way to improve the mood for urbanites,” sums up Bratman.
The documentary Play Again sheds quite chilling information about the habits of children in the United States: they spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and between seven and eleven hours in front of all kinds of screens. Their experiences, as with adults, are becoming more virtual than real.
"The scientific evidence linking experiences in nature to better emotional health is expanding," said Verne Richard Louv, author of the best-selling The Last Children in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. “We are already seeing the impact of these discoveries in the mental health arena. There are already methods of therapy based on nature, such as animal therapy, horticulture or eco-psychology, and their success is being seen with patients who had not responded to other treatments ”.
Concerned about the growing disconnect from the land - in 2008, for the first time in history, there were more people living in cities than in the countryside - Louv coined the term nature deficit disorder to refer to hyperactivity or obesity that often They appear when children lose that fundamental connection. The addiction to screens starts very soon, and it means that there is a lot of energy blocking our senses. “This, for me, is the definition of being less alive. I don't think anyone wants their children to be less alive, ”says the writer. "The more the education of children is supported in technology, the more nature they will need," says Louv, who is committed to what he calls a "hybrid mind", one that handles well both in the natural world and in technology. .
In their research with children, UAM researchers show how closeness to nature increases the ability to cope with stressful phenomena in children's lives. This is what is known as the "moderating effect" of nature, which also occurs with adults. In a different study, a group of volunteers ran on a treadmill for ten minutes, increasing their physiological constants such as heart rate. The researchers attached electrodes to measure these constants and divided them into three groups. While recovering, some contemplated images of nature, others quiet pedestrian streets and others images of heavy traffic. "The group that contemplated the nature scenes recovered their pulsations and other constants in half the time," says Corraliza.
This does not mean that just living in the country will make you happier. "Nature has positive effects when there is damage caused by the absence of contact," says Corraliza, who points out that the rural environment can also be stressful due to the opposite: the absence of stimuli, social relationships and horizons.
It is not necessary, in any case, to go out into the forest. The green spaces of the city provide “micro-restorative experiences. Urban green is not an ornament. It is a key element for well-being ”, says the expert. In fact, in their research in squares in Madrid, Corraliza and his team observed that squares with more vegetation are preferred by neighbors because they have a greater capacity for psychological restoration, not because they are more beautiful.
Are we generally aware of this restorative power? Corraliza refers to a “natural illiteracy”, which does not have to do with knowing the name of the local birds by heart but with the ability to enjoy the environment. It is not so much about programming an activity in contact with nature in schools, says Corraliza, but about practicing it. Just as the beloved teacher (played by Fernando Fernán Gómez) did in the film The Language of the Butterflies, who reminded his students that "nature is the most surprising spectacle that man can see". It only takes a few moments to contemplate it.
Verne The Country