By Heather Carr, DPT, NTP, PRC, OCS, MTC
The following article was heavily inspired by the book Blue Mind:The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do by Wallace J. Nichols as well as the teachings of the Postural Restoration Institute. There are also echoes from a number of other books (The Open Focus Brainby Les Fehmi, Sight and Sensibility by Laura Sewall, Primal Body, Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas and articles I have read (see here). Any study that is mentioned below can be referenced in Blue Mind.

Nature deficit disorder.  This is the situation for many of us living in a digital based society. In a typical day we send and receive more than 100 emails, check our phone 34 times, facebook 5 times, and spend ½ hour liking and messaging friends. For every hour we spend talking on the phone we spend 5 hours surfing the web, emailing, texting, tweeting, and social networking. This totals 90 eight-hour days per year. We spend at least 1 hour per day dealing with distractions which accounts for 5 full weeks per year.  We eat up an entire month each year allocating precious bodily resources to interruptions! When dealing with frequent breaks the brain spends so much energy managing the multi-tasking that there are less resources available to deeply process, analyze, and create.

In addition to the overwhelming amount of digital stimulation, we are also spending the majority of our existence indoors sitting in artificial environments. When we do get the chance to walk it is on hard flat surfaces with a barrier between our skin and the ground. If we actually find the time to exercise for many it takes place inside a gym behaving as hamsters on some sort of electronic equipment. Indoors we are breathing and smelling stale air coupled with any toxic by-products emitted from our surrounding synthetic creations. We are seeing walls and visually accommodating to not only small spaces but small brightly lit screens tempting us to develop myopia as we interface with our personal iclouds.  We are seeing and hearing TVs bombarding us with more artificial products to consume, constant repetitive chatter about which team or politician can win, how we should look, and what we should like. Finally, we are consuming and feeding our cells a plethora of artificial and highly processed ingredients tainted with pathological chemicals.

I don’t mean to sound so negative but am simply trying to be honest about what humans are really doing on a day to day basis. This brings us to the question of, “So what? Does it really matter if we are living this way? Am I being a bit dramatic?  Why do I care?” The answer is “From my perspective; Yes! It absolutely matters that we are living the majority of our existence in human-made environments.” I care because I care about my life, my fellow human beings’ life, and the life of our planet. I care so much that I am writing this article to hopefully inspire others to also care. However, I ultimately realize that I cannot reach or shift everyone who may read this. Yet, in order to be true to myself, I shall try.

Our bodies were designed to exist in natural environments. Life (with humans evolving 100-200,000 years ago) has spent 3 million years outside. Our DNA codes for us to solve problems outdoors moving in an unstable environment in order to survive. This is how we became so smart with our amazingly evolved brains. We are particularly connected to water and its blue, soft, rhythmic characteristics. From an evolutionary perspective, as we crawled out of the sea to try out life on land our senses depended on being able to find our liquid homes again. We spend the first 9 months of our existence in a fluid filled womb listening to the rhythmical sounds of our mother’s heart beat and breathing. Our bodies are 60-78% water with the brain 80% water by volume. If we don’t appropriately nourish ourselves with it, our cognition, physical performance, and general physiological functioning can decline to the point of death. The sounds, sights, smells, sensations, and sustenance of water and nature mean life. Our bodies and brains deep down know this and are desperately trying to tell us so via modern disease.

Research is proving the physiological connections between ourselves and nature. Different parts of the brain become more active when one is viewing nature scenes. These include increased functioning in the anterior cingulate and insula (associated with empathy); basal ganglia (involved with autonomic and rhythmical movements); prefrontal cortex (where our high level cognitive functioning occurs), and nucleus accumbens (reward and pleasure center). Our natural “feel good” biochemicals of endorphins, oxytocin, and dopamine are associated with being in a natural environment. One study tracked participants via GPS and showed that people experienced the highest levels of happiness outdoors. In another experiment, students whose rooms overlooked trees and a lake performed better on cognitive tests in addition to experiencing improved attentional functioning. Water images in particular have the ability to evoke positive emotions and sustain attention. On the flipside, urbanized environments are associated with increased stress and its physiological consequences such as an oversensitized amygdala (propagates fear and anxiety) and decreased functioning of the pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus (important for learning and memory).

There are two general different types of attention. The first is “directed attention” which requires a great deal of energy and is valuable when making decisions, interacting with others, and focusing on a task. The second is “involuntary” and requires little effort, allows the brain to rest, and is facilitated by natural environments. This “involuntary” state allows the mind to wander and serves as a desirable default mode for the brain. In this state, neuroplastic memory, learning, and creativity can optimally occur. This state could also be referred to as “flow” where one loses sense of time and self being completely in the present moment.

Our brains crave predictable patterns with a layer of novelty. This developed out of our long history of surviving in the wild. Natural landscapes provide a stable, often rhythmical, and familiar background as we scan for unpredictability. For our ancestors this was typically a predator, the opportunity to be a predator, or an opportunity to mate. The brain positively changes itself in reaction to these random perturbations against a trusted environment. In the book Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols, he discusses how water serves as a fitting natural agent to satisfy these needs within us. The rhythmic sights, sounds, smells, and sensations water creates for us are soothingly repetitive yet have just enough variability to keep us entranced. Furthermore, research has shown physiological benefits to being in and around water such as decreased cortisol and sympathetic nervous system activity (associated with the stress response) with increased parasympathetic activity (associated with a calm state propagating rest and regeneration).

Within this required juxtaposition of predictability and unpredictability, is our body’s dependency on receiving multi-sensory experiences.  In order for us to detect novelty, we need to be able to see, smell, taste, hear, and feel it. With properly dosaged sensory stimuli, our prefrontal cortex (high level cognition) is optimized and we can exist in state of relaxed awareness. Our senses are closely connected to our memory and cognition. Weakness in one is often related to weakness in another. As we age, we get more forgetful and distracted in a large part because our brain is not able to process what we hear, see, and feel as well as it once did. This also parallels a young urbanized society that is deprived of natural environments and stimuli.

From a proprioceptive perspective, not being able to feel the ground (as we are typically walking around in shoes on artificial flat surfaces) has significant repercussions for our bodies. It is a stressor for us to not perceive the ground. We need to wear shoes with arch supports to essentially bring the ground up to our foot because otherwise we are unable to sense it. Without this sensory input, our neuromuscular system reacts by increasing tension which can alter our breathing, postural patterns, and biomechanics setting us up for musculoskeletal injury and pain. Dysautonomic conditions such as POTs can be associated with individuals who have difficulty processing proprioceptive information from their feet. Furthermore, any stressor to the body can manifest in another system as per the “Integrated Systems Model of Stress and its Potential Clinical Patterns.”

From a visual perspective, the chronic near-work we endure in our digital and literate based society is associated with the development of nearsightedness, otherwise known as myopia. This visual impairment can be viewed as an adaption to the stress imposed on the visual system through the constant accommodative processing that is occurring through reading and interacting with a 2-dimensional digital landscape. Other visual adaptations such as astigmatism and issues with binocularity (ability of the eyes to work together) may occur in response to the functional stresses we impose on ourselves coupled with the postural ones. As stated previously, any stressor to one system in the body can also impact another per the “Integrated Systems Model of Stress and its Potential Clinical Patterns.”

From a hearing and sound perspective, the constant bombardment of noise, particularly if loud, creates stress in our bodies. Studies show that people who live in places with continuously high levels of traffic sounds have a greater risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and suppressed immune systems. We evolved listening to a silent landscape layered with the rhythmical sounds of nature. Most types of music can actually emulate this and have shown to demonstrate similar activation patterns in the brain compared to natural sounds. The noises of traffic, TV, and certain genres of loud music that we are bombarded with in modern culture do not reflect what our auditory systems evolved under.

The senses of taste and smell are intertwined with what we eat. Just as we need the natural elements of water, air, and sunlight to survive, food is also essential. For 97% of our human existence and depending on where we lived, we consumed wild animals, fish, seasonal plants, nuts, and berries. Grains were not introduced until 10,000 years ago and are inherently very difficult for humans to digest, particularly the way they are processed and prepared by modern methods. Furthermore, the modern processing of foods such as pasteurization, spray drying, freeze drying, and the addition of artificial ingredients and preservatives didn’t occur until the last 150 years. The use of aggressive and toxic organic and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers has exploded over the most recent century. Genetically modified foods began in the 1980s. In sum, we have radically changed our diets in a relatively short amount of time (.001-.0005% of human existence) to industrialized quality food.  Not only are we not consuming food as it was intended for us but our sources of fat and protein (mainly animals) are also not being fed what they were inherently designed to eat (grass grown by the natural elements of the environment) but instead are  grain fed. This is in addition to various cocktails of medications including antibiotics and hormones to increase their size and manage the illnesses they are very susceptible to existing under these conditions. The amount of nourishment we obtain through the meat and plants we eat is ultimately reflected on the quality of nourishment they obtained.  In sum, our connection to mother earth through our senses of taste and smell via dietary and nutritional sustenance has dramatically been altered.

A prominentely pervasive pattern in nature is rhythm. This occurs from the vibratory nature of subatomic particles that make up our bodies and universe all the way to the human and celestial bodies they create. The term “fractal” means a neverending pattern that is persistent in nature. Our world is fractal and rhythm is the pulse, breath, and dance of it. Unfortunately, we are losing our natural inherent tempos. Our heart rate, breathing patterns, and ability to properly shift side to side when walking are becoming somewhat extinct as the incidence of chronic disease, pain, and movement dysfunction in our digital society rises. It is imperative for us to regain our rhythm through rediscovering our cadence with our environment.

Our lack of sensory interface with our environment not only impacts our physiological functioning from a cognitive and physical perspective but also from an emotional one. Because we do not sense nature we do not empathize with it. We view it as unnecessary and disconnected from us. This feeds an egocentric state of being versus an anthropocentric (recognition of the relationship between self and nature) and biocentric (self is nature) perspective. When we view ourselves as separate, we create a compassionate blind spot towards other people and/or nature. However, immersion in nature, creates positive feelings and a sense of interconnectedness with our world. We feel as if we are a part of something larger than ourselves that eliminates a dualistic perspective. In order to conserve our environment, we must first conserve our experience with it. This means reconnecting to mother earth through all of our senses.

In conclusion, we need to sense and feel nature to feel good and function at our best. Nature nurtures us. At the same time, nature needs us to nurture her. The only way we will take care of her is to care about her. The only way to care for her is to sense and feel her. Such is the rhythm of life.

How can we reconcile a digital and natural world?

I admit that the story I just told could lead one to believe I am recommending that we completely abandon our lives and retreat to a pastoral lakeside forest after taking some wilderness survival courses. This is obviously not realistic or practical. Although it might be fun and beneficial to do periodically… Or perhaps a more reasonable “Top 10” solution would be:

  1. Get outside whenever you can and leave your digital entourage behind. If you can’t get out of the office then make use of those windows to visually expand and connect.
  2. A virtual substitute (art, tranquil natural music sounds or videos) can be an alternative (although still not as powerful) to the real thing.
  3. Be mindful of the sounds, sight, smells, and sensations you are feeling in nature. Aim for a multi-sensory experience.
  4. Water is particularly calming and rejuvenating for our bodies. “You don’t need to meditate to water because it meditates you.” (Blue Mind)
  5. Consider if what you are eating is truly natural and was grown the way nature intended.
  6. Mindful eating habits please. Make the experience be about connecting you, the food (thoroughly tasted and chewed), and any natural surroundings (including people) around you.
  7. Do you really need to be checking your phone, email, and social network as often as you are?
  8. Rediscover how to properly multi-dimensionally shift and rhythmically move your body. As a Physical Therapist, this is my area of expertise and I heavily rely on the PRI approach to accomplish this.
  9. Walk, or even better play, barefoot outside on soft uneven earth such as grass or sand if you can.
  10. Be grateful to be not only a part of, but have the ability to be consciously and sensorily aware of our amazing and ever evolving universe.