“Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku or forest bathing”
“Your Brain on Nature” examines the fascinating effects that exposure to nature can have on the brain. In Your Brain on Nature, physician Eva Selhub and biophilosopher Alan C. Logan examine not only the effects of nature on the brain, but the influence of everyday technology on the brain, and how IT overload and its many distractions may even be changing it! Offering an antidote for the technology-addicted, the book outlines emerging nature-based therapies including ecotherapy, as well as practical strategies for improving your (and your children’s) cognitive functioning, mental health and physical well-being through ecotherapeutic, nutritional and behavioural means. A powerful wake-up call for our tech-immersed society, “Your Brain on Nature” examines the fascinating effects that exposure to nature can have on the brain.
Scientific studies have shown that natural environments can have remarkable benefits for human health. Natural environments are more likely to promote positive emotions; walking in nature has been associated with heightened physical and mental energy.
It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit. —Robert Louis Stevenson
Medical doctors, including Franklin B. Hough, reported in early U.S. medical journals that forests have a “cheerful and tranquilizing influence which they exert upon the mind, more especially when worn down by mental labor.” Individuals report that forests are the perfect landscape to cultivate what are called transcendent experiences—these are unforgettable moments of extreme happiness, of attunement to that outside the self, and moments that are ultimately perceived as very important to the individual.
In 1982, the Forest Agency of the Japanese government premiered its shinrin-yoku plan. In Japanese shinrin means forest, and yoku, although it has several meanings, refers here to a “bathing, showering or basking in.” More broadly, it is defined as “taking in, in all of our senses, the forest atmosphere.” The program was established to encourage people to get out into nature, to literally bathe the mind and body in green spaces, and take advantage of public owned forest networks as a means of promoting health. In 1990 when Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University was trailed by film crew from the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) as he conducted a small study in the beautiful forests of Yakushima. It was a test of shinrin-yoku. The area contains some of Japan’s most pristine forests, including those of select cedar trees that are over 1,000 years old. Miyazaki reported that a level of physical activity (40 minutes of walking) in the cedar forest equivalent to that done indoors in a laboratory was associated with improved mood and feelings of vigor. Stress hormones can compromise immune defense; in particular, the activities of front-line defenders, such as antiviral natural killer cells, are suppressed by stress hormones. Since forest bathing can lower stress hormone production and elevate mood states, it’s not surprising that it also influences markers of immune system strength. Qing Li and colleagues from the Nippon Medical School showed that forest bathing (either a day trip or a couple of hours daily over three days) can have a long-lasting influence on immune markers relative to city trips.
In addition, the natural chemicals secreted by evergreen trees, collectively known as phytoncide, have also been associated with improvements in the activity of our front-line immune defenders. Li has measured the amount of phytoncide in the air during the studies and correlated the content to improvements in immune functioning. This is due to various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better —inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function.
This is an interesting finding in the context of the century-old reports on the success of the so-called forest cure in tuberculosis treatment. In the mid- to late 1800s, physicians Peter Detweiler and Hermann Brehmer set up sanatoriums in Germany’s pine forests, as did Edward Trudeau in the Adirondack forests of New York. All reported the benefit of the forest air; indeed, contrary to expectations, the results seemed to be magnified when the forest air trapped moisture.
In the midst of performing his physiology studies, Ulrich published in 1984 a landmark study in the prestigious journal Science. He collected records from a single suburban Pennsylvania hospital from 1972 to 1981. He was very specific in what he examined—adults who had undergone identical surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) during this time frame—and the only major distinction among the patients was the room into which they were wheeled for recovery. Rooms on one side of the hospital had windows with a view to a mini-forest, while rooms on the other side offered a dramatically different vista in the form of a brick wall. The results were quite dramatic: those who had an outdoor view to trees had significantly shorter hospital stays and fewer post-surgical complaints. They also used less-potent analgesic medications (aspirin instead of narcotics). Since Ulrich’s original observation, there have been additional studies confirming that the mere presence of flowering and foliage plants inside a hospital room can make a difference.
Norwegian research shows that having a plant at or within view of an office workstation significantly decreases the risk of sick leave. A 2010 study from the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, reported that levels of anger, anxiety, depressive thoughts, and fatigue all reduced over a three-month period, and not just by a little bit—these parameters were reduced by about 40 percent, while reported stress was down by 50 percent.
Trees soothe the spirit too. A study on forest bathing’s psychological effects surveyed 498 healthy volunteers, twice in a forest and twice in control environments. The subjects showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, coupled with increased liveliness, after exposure to trees. “Accordingly,” the researchers wrote, “forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes.”
Forest bathing is a meditative-like practice which involves immersing oneself in nature, and interacting with your surroundings using all five senses. It has origins in Japan, where it has links to ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices and was named Shinrin-yoku, meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”.
It can involve anything from snapping twigs and sniffing them, to watching birds flit from tree to tree. The point is to slow your mind and hone your senses. It’s not about getting exercise, nor is it about getting into nature – it’s about being in the moment and absorbing your surroundings. To go for a mindful walk, very slow in pace, like a walking meditation.
You can actually do this anywhere in nature, in a park, and even in your own garden. Why not try to unplug from the technology overload , and take a mindful break in nature today? See the colors as if for the first time, smell the herbs, feel your connection to the environment around you: the trees, the birds, the plants, the earth, the water, and the air; breathe, and breathe deeply!