The Scientific Evidence that Enchantment in Nature Heals Us

I want to share excerpts from two articles recently published by the Sierra Club, “The Science of Awe” by Jake Abrahamson and “Outdoors for All” by Richard Louv. These essays explore this extraordinary power of awe/enchantment in Nature to heal us, physically, psychologically, and spiritually:

“Scientifically speaking, the state of awe, an emotion that, psychologists are coming to understand, can have profoundly positive effects on people. It happens when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental models of what’s possible in the world. In its wake, people act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli, like arguments or advertisements, and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general. Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. And about three-quarters of the time, it’s elicited by nature.

IT WAS ONLY 11 YEARS AGO that psychologists Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt, then at the University of Virginia, proposed awe as an emotion worth studying. “In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear,” they wrote in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2003, “awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation… Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”

Over twenty studies later, the picture of awe is clearer and more detailed.

“In various studies we’ve asked people, ‘What’s running through your mind when you feel awe?’” Keltner said, “and they’ll say things like ‘I want to make the world better,’ or ‘I just feel like being quiet,’ or ‘I feel like purifying things.’ It makes you humble. It makes you curious about the world.” To awe, Keltner attributes both the faith of Krishna, who, according to myth, on being shown the secrets of the universe through a third eye, was suddenly ready to do God’s work; and the desire of John Muir to protect the environment, which was brought about by his life-altering experiences in the Sierra. Throughout his writings, Muir described quintessential awe experiences. Take this moment, when he feels pleasurably energized by the massive and threatening Mt. Hood: “There stood Mount Hood in all the glory of the alpenglow, looming immensely high, beaming with intelligence, and so impressive that one was overawed as if suddenly brought before some superior being newly arrived from the sky.”

The increased popularity of incorporating the healing power of the awe of nature into health care, public health programs, architecture, and education has been inspired by a relatively new body of scientific evidence that associates improved wellness and lower mortality rates with access to green and biodiverse spaces. In the span of a decade, the number of studies indicating that time spent in natural surroundings–whether groomed urban parks or unruly wilderness landscapes–can improve people’s well-being has increased from dozens to hundreds. In 2017, a study published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet Planetary Health suggested that people who live in green neighborhoods live longer than those with little nature nearby. The study tracked 1.3 million Canadian adults living in the country’s 30 biggest cities and considered socioeconomic and education differences as control factors. Dan Crouse, a health geographer and the lead author of the study, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “There was a lot bigger effect than I think any of us had been expecting.”

Expanding research has also shown that exposure to nature can reduce children’s symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and help prevent or reduce obesity, myopia, and vitamin D deficiency. And the research suggests that time spent in nature may improve social bonding and reduce violence, stimulate learning and creativity, help raise standardized test scores, and serve as a buffer to toxic stress, depression, and anxiety. Most of these findings are correlative, not causal. But longitudinal studies are beginning to support them.

This movement is grounded in biologist Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis–which suggests that human beings are genetically programmed to have an affiliation with the rest of nature–and anchored in ideals of justice and fairness. If Wilson is right, and if the research is correct, nature connection is more than a nice pursuit, a pastime, or a privilege. It is a necessity. In the words of David Orr, a leader in environmental education and green urban design, the human connection to a healthy natural environment is “the ultimate human right, upon which all other rights depend.”

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