Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher–William Wordsworth
So here it is, the last day of my winter vacation, and I am sitting inside watching people play ball outside at the Rose Bowl. It might not seem so crazy to those of you who either love football or live in a cold climate that one would spend January 2nd indoors; but where I live it is about 60 degrees and sunny. While I do love watching football, there is no legitimate weather-related excuse for being indoors, particularly since I have TIVO.
In addition to watching large men smash into each other on TV, I also used today to catch up on old magazines that are currently forming a looming architectural structure in my home that is getting large enough to require a light to alert approaching airplanes. The fact that I am staring into a screen (while my daughter is next to me playing Temple Run on her iPhone) and not frolicking out in nature became particularly poignant as I finally got to a November 7th Newsweek article entitled “Don’t Let the Chaos Get You Down” by Dr. Andrew Weil.
In his article, Dr. Weil describes how many in the medical profession believe that depression is largely a disease of affluence related to living in the industrialized world. He notes that the Amish, who shun many modern comforts, have 1/10 the rate of depression of other Americans. Dr. Weil blames this tendency towards depression on two primary factors: 1) over-exposure to information and electronic stimuli from the constant data stream from email, Internet, TV and mobile phones; and, 2) under-exposure to nature.
It was the latter, which has been termed “nature deficit disorder,” that particularly caught my attention as I sit here surrounded by artificial light, multiple remote controls and a stuffed Bucky Badger toy on an otherwise sunny day. I live in a near utopian area of Northern California with access to bay, ocean, redwood forest, fluffy meadows, all within 30 minutes of my home. While I do get out and about, I definitely spend far more time on the inside looking out than on the outside pondering the lives of squirrels and other woodland creatures. And that’s not a good strategy, I am learning from Dr. Weil. He explains that there is “gathering scientific evidence for the benefits of living close to nature, not simply for enjoying its beauty or getting spiritual sustenance but for keeping our brains and nervous systems in good working order.” Weil offers these examples:
- We get vitamin D, now known to be necessary for optimum brain health, by spending time in the sun.
- Our cycles of sleep and waking and other circadian rhythms are maintained by exposure to bright light during the day and darkness at night. Lack of bright natural light during waking hours and exposure to artificial light at night disrupt these rhythms, interfering with our sleep, energy, and moods.
- Hunter-gatherers and other primitive people do not develop the deficits of vision and the need for corrective lenses as early in life as people in our society do, probably because they grow up looking at distant landscapes more often than reading books, writing, or staring at television and computer screens. Because the eye is a direct extension of the brain, eye health is an indicator of brain health.
- Our hearing has evolved to attend to and analyze changes in the complex acoustical patterns of nature, like those of forests, running water, rain, and wind. Evolution did not prepare us to endure the kinds of man-made sounds that pervade our cities and lives today. Noise strongly affects our emotions, nervous systems, and physiology.
So bottom line: if you don’t spend enough time communing with nature you are making yourself stupider, blinder, deafer and sleep-deprived. That is definitely not the path to nirvana and it reminds me of the Woody Allen quote, “I am two with nature.” Ironically, if cloistering yourself inside is making you blinder and deafer, it will soon become less and less satisfying to sit inside watching the TV or computer screen since you will have to work harder and harder to perceive it. You may just eventually end up as one of those people watching the screen through a telescope (even though you have set it for maximum font size) with the volume turned up louder than a Rolling Stones concert (which would now be conducted at an especially high volume since all of their audience members are too old to hear). Oh, and by the way, watching the National Geographic Channel does not count as communing with nature.
Dr. Weil blames the maladies of a nature-free life on there having evolved a “…a mismatch between our genes and the modern environment. Our brains simply are not suited for the modern world.” In other words, we are trying to have 21st century experiences from inside our 18th century machines. It’s a bit like living the Jetsons’ life with the Flintstones’ equipment. If only our modern day equipment worked Flintstones’ style (where the “rabbit ears” on the TV were an actual rabbit or the iPhone camera housed a bird who chiseled the pictures on stone with its beak) we WOULD actually be closer to nature.
Well, the good news of course, is that this nature-deficit-disorder problem is eminently curable. All you have to do is get outside and hug a tree or at least wink at it when you walk briskly by enjoying the scenery. I have cast around for creative New Years’ resolutions and I think I have finally found my target: to get out into nature for at least 4 days each week. Who knows? Maybe I’ll encounter a real badger to rival the stuffed Bucky surrogate sitting in my living room.
In closing, a special note of condolences to those University of Wisconsin faithful who came up on the short end of the Rose Bowl again this year. At least your boys got nearly four hours of outside nature exposure. They may not have a trophy, but they will see, hear and sleep better as a result. Given that they are football players that get regularly hit on the head for a living, I’m not sure that the Vitamin D is going to help them get smarter.