Humans have always been fascinated by nature. Even in cave paintings throughout the world, the subjects of our fascination were most commonly animals. Nature continued to take on a mystical quality throughout the ages in religion and stories. In modern times, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban environments. Given this separation, is it any wonder that nature continues to hold a special place in our collective consciousness? It’s the very essence of why humans enjoy travel and vacationing. It gives us a chance to explore new horizons while helping us expand our own.
The modern fascination with nature is so great that there are entire channels on television dedicated to nothing but programming related to the natural world. A person who has never left the confines of their city can watch on a screen as animals from continents away live their lives in an environment that may be completely alien to one that these people are familiar with. However, how does this compare to the real thing?
A paper published by Herriot-Watt University in the United Kingdom in 2013 expanded on a theory that has been studied for some time: that exposure to nature is measurably good for people. Previous studies have measured stress markers before and after exposure to “green spaces” such as parks and trees and found that the stress markers were significantly lowered after exposure to these places. Another study tested the ability of children with ADD before and after walks through parks and determined that focus was improved.
In the Herriot-Watt University study, portable EEG machines were used on volunteers through three different environments: a historic district with light foot and motor traffic, a park, and a busy business district with heavy foot and motor traffic. The brain waves recorded in the park showed a more relaxed state of mind as compared to the more agitated, stressed state of mind when walking through the busier environments.
Given this information, it seems clear that humans derive relaxation and pleasure from exposure to nature. How best can one take advantage of this fact? Thankfully, entire industries have grown around humanity’s fascination with the natural world. Before there was television, zoos brought nature to the urban public and continue to do so to this day. The first zoos were private collections of exotic animals for royalty, called royal menageries, dating back to as early as 2500 BCE in kingdoms as diverse as Egypt, China and the Aztecs.
Today, zoos are primarily locations for education of the public and conservation efforts. Another unfortunate side effect of modernization, besides the loss of natural space for humans to enjoy, is loss of that same space for animals to call home. In return for people visiting a zoo and enjoying the opportunity to see animals that they might never have seen otherwise, the zoo is able to make sure that future generations are able to see these same animals through breeding and upkeep.
Habitat loss is also the reason why national parks exist: to ensure that there will always be places of natural beauty for people to enjoy. In 1872, Yellowstone National Park was established as the first national park for the United States of America. Following this act, more than 100 nations since have founded their own national parks in order to preserve the natural beauty of their own countries.
As they are bigger and wilder than city parks, national parks are wonderful locations to enjoy nature. The opportunity to see large animals that have long since left populated areas can be enjoyed, as can air free from city smog and noise, and natural phenomena that could not be seen anywhere else. From Old Faithful in Yellowstone to the fossilized trees of Petrified Forest National Park, every site has something unique and interesting.
Back when our distant ancestors painted bears and bison on caves, nature was seen as something to be revered and possibly even feared. Now we know that it is something that can heal and soothe our minds. Following the Herriot-Watt study, we might start to find time to step outside into the green to help focus and calm our minds before heading back in to work. Whether you choose to lie out in the sun in a city park, take a day at a city zoo, or plan a vacation to see the world around you, you can do so knowing that this encounter with nature is leaving you changed for the better.
Special thanks to writer contributor Vincent Stokes.