Nature-Deficit Disorder is a relatively new concept that just might become the next catch phrase in our evolving lexicon. It refers to the physical and mental ailments of people disconnected from nature. Researchers suspect that our brains have difficulty functioning with a lack of natural stimulants, a situation that defines the modern, post- industrial world. Some believe that the human brain is unable to deal with the information-overloaded lifestyle, created by electronic technology.
Consequently, mental health interventionists, in an attempt to trace the roots of depression in our society, suspect that it is a direct result of 21st-century life. To corroborate their suspicion, scientists point to third world countries, where populations are yet untouched by modernity, and where rates of depression are lowest.
In his latest work, author Dr. Andrew Weil addresses the topic of sadness. Titled Spontaneous Happiness, his book was featured recently at Newsweek’s, online magazine, The Daily Beast. In that post, excerpts from the book were quoted to elaborate on the relationship between feeling depressed and being disconnected from nature.
While Dr. Weil is not universally acknowledged as a final authority, his many published works resonate with a significant portion of the public. Some consider him a medical guru; his influence in the mainstream is significant because his books attract media interest. However, on the subject of the healing power of nature, Dr. Weil gets my attention, as well.
Those of us who’ve been gardening for a lifetime, or even just a season, are aware of the feeling of euphoria and of the sense of well being that accompanies time spent outdoors. Circulating and shared among gardeners are anecdotes about the lingering physical and mental benefits of working in sun and fresh air, of immersing our bare hands into rich, warm soil, about admiring butterflies, and listening to the sounds of water, birds, and wind.
To understand the healing and invigorating powers of being both outdoors and away from modern life, one only has to observe the large numbers of people who regularly reconnect with nature to visit, camp out at, and explore national and state parks around the country.
Another aspect of nature that may contribute to one’s well being is the act of experiencing majestic landscape vistas. For many years, when I worked in industry, I would leave town every Friday afternoon in summer, to join my wife, for the weekend, in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Just past the midpoint of my trip on Interstate 89, somewhere between the town of Plattsburgh and the village of Schroon Lake, there are a few combined mountain-and-sky vistas that make me gasp - they are that awesome to behold. Even after thirty years of driving the identical route every summer weekend, this scenery continues to emotionally overwhelm me.
The restorative benefits to my body and mind, when reconnecting with the outdoors, begin with my eyes, while I am driving on the highway, admiring the scenery. By the time I arrived at the cabin, my stress and fatigue have dissipated. The clean, fresh, mountain air, that greets me as I step out of the car, is the ultimate natural remedy for the fatigue of the workweek.
Dr. Weil writes that in addition to the beauty and spiritual sustenance that it supplies, nature is essential to keeping our brains and nervous systems in good working order. Some of the examples he cites include the important contribution to brain health supplied by the sun’s vitamin D, the benefits to our sleep cycle from exposure to bright daylight, the benefits to ocular health derived from continuously observing long distance vistas, and the role that natural sounds play in soothing our emotions.
In the context of brain health, Dr. Weil is also critical of the technological and information overload that we experience on a daily basis. He maintains that our brains were not created to handle this abundance. They were genetically adapted to help us negotiate a successful course through complex, changing, and often hazardous natural environments. [Isn't it thrilling to explore the outdoors?] In the long run, Dr. Weil believes that information surfeit – as he describes it - will prove to be not only unsatisfying but, also, potentially harmful.
If the quality of mental health in modern, post-industrial society continues to deteriorate, perhaps one day “gardening” and “hiking” will appear on doctors’ prescription pads, as alternative therapies to help sad patients dis- connected from nature. I wonder what it will take to convince a skeptical or cynical medical student that nature can be a healer.