• John-Michael Scurio

Shinrin-yoku

It means, "forest bathing" in Japanese.

In Eureka Springs, we call it a hike and as simple as it may seem to take one, there is actually a lot of complexity poured into a simple hike, or shinrin-yoku.

No matter what you call it, people all around the world have an intuitive sense of the restorative power of our natural environment. Here in Eureka Springs, we are blessed with our natural bucolic byways - they envelope us with Mother Nature's love and surround our life experience here everyday.


Scientists have advanced a wide range of theories about the specific physical and mental benefits nature can provide, ranging from clean air and lack of noise pollution to the apparent immune-boosting effects of a fine mist of "wood essential oils." But the most powerful benefits, a new study suggests, may result from the way trees and birds and sunsets gently tug – but never grab – at our attention.


The study, which which appeared in an issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders, found that volunteers suffering from depression who took a 50-minute walk in a woodland park improved their cognition, as measured by the ability to remember a random string of digits and repeat them in reverse order, compared to those who took a walk through city streets.

(Note: an earlier study found similar results in subjects who weren't depressed.)

The explanation, according to lead author Marc Berman, a former research fellow at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, lies in the distinction between two types of attention: "voluntary," in which we consciously focus on something; and "involuntary," in which something grabs our attention.

Dr. Marc Berman

The ability to direct voluntary attention is crucial in daily life (and for cognitive tasks like remembering random digits), but it's easily fatigued. Dr. Berman and his colleagues believe that going for a walk in the park gives voluntary attention a break, since your mind has a chance to wander aimlessly and be engaged – involuntarily but gently – by your surroundings.


Senses

In beautiful Eureka Springs, we're away from loud noises and distractions. It is less crowded here than it is in big cities, so you don't have to worry about bumping into throngs of people, and the many wooded areas that surround Eureka are dotted with interesting things to stimulate all five senses, which automatically grabs our attention.

In contrast, honking horns and traffic lights (please note, Eureka Springs doesn't have one single traffic light) and crowded malls – and pretty much every other ingredient of modern life in a big city – constantly force you to exert your voluntary attention to react or block them out, leaving you more cognitively depleted.


It seems strange but all this makes it sound as if the benefits of nature are mostly in our head for it's true that simply looking out a window at nature or, to a slightly lesser extent, looking at pictures of nature scenes can produce some of the same effects . . . but the physical environment itself plays a much bigger role.


Breathe

One obvious candidate is air quality: A single exposure to polluted air can trigger lung and heart problems, and chronic exposure has been linked to cognitive decline. Even downtown parks and riverside bike paths are likely to have significantly better air quality than busy city streets, and trees offer an additional protective effect. The level of vehicle emissions just 200 metres away from a road is already four times lower than it is on the sidewalk next to the road.


A more unusual suggestion, proposed by researchers at Japan's Nippon Medical School, is that trees emit a fine mist of health-giving "wood essential oils." In a series of shinrin-yoku studies, the researchers have reported that walking in a forest enhances immune function (as measured by levels of "natural killer cells"), reduces levels of stress hormones and lowers blood pressure, compared to similar walks taken in downtown Tokyo.

On long walks my breathing grows deep and relaxed, and the tension in my shoulders melts away. Since coming here to reside in Eureka Springs, I have discovered that nature is not the dark and scary place that this city kid has long feared—but it is, in fact, the place where I become more mindful of what it means to be alive and what my body needs in order to thrive. Nature feeds my soul. /John-Michael Scurio

Color

Still, the fact that pictures of nature can produce cognitive benefits suggests that at least part of the effect is mediated by what we see. One simple hypothesis is color: Nature scenes tend to feature more green than urban scenes. A more subtle possibility is that natural landscapes have more fractal patterns – a mathematical classification that describes the complex shapes of phenomena like coastlines, mountain ranges and broccoli florets – compared to the simple straight lines that characterize man-made environments.

"Maybe looking at these fractal patterns grabs attention automatically, which leads to this more restorative process," Dr. Berman says.


There's no magic potion, oil, or recipe. For now, please take comfort in knowing that the benefits of exposure to nature are real and measurable. And in our ever-increasingly distracting and distracted world, these benefits are more important than ever.

Tips To Boost Your Outdoor Experience

  • Be One With Nature Focus on a tree. Breathe in and focus your gaze to one single leaf. As you breathe out, move to another leaf. Continue leaf by leaf and as your mind wanders away, gently bring your attention back to breathing with the leaves.

  • Be Present With Nature Find a perch, or a large rock or another peaceful place to sit comfortably in the woods. Ask yourself: What sensations do I feel on my skin? What sounds do I hear all around me? What smells do I notice? What do I see that brings me joy?

  • Be Now With Nature You want to be stimulated enough to avoid boredom, but have enough freedom for your mind to wander. For example, find a bird. Focus your attention on that bird and allow your mind to wander with questions like: How does it eat? How does it interact with the other birds? How many different colors do you see in the feathers? What kind of sound comes from this bird?

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