When I was a little kid, my favorite book was Philippe in Monet’s Garden, a picture book about a frog who escapes a Parisian frog catcher and finds a home on the famous painter’s estate. When I was a few years older, I marveled at the beautiful paintings of the waterlilies in Monet’s pond. Needless to say, I was thrilled to take a day trip to Giverny and see for myself the iconic place that has enthralled me for years. The grounds of Monet’s home did not disappoint; I consider this outing to be one of my favorite things I have done in France.
Despite my love for all of the art that originating from that special place, while walking through the gardens I wasn’t thinking about paintings or talking frogs; I was swept up in the beauty of it all. It’s not everyday you find yourself in a place so dense in natural beauty, but even the parks around Emory seem to have this soothing effect on me.
A number of scientific studies have set out to explore this phenomenon that I have observed. Large scale studies of different populations have concluded that people who live close to nature, whether it be Monet’s gardens or Piedmont park, tend to be happier and experience less mental distress than those who live in more urbanized areas (White et al., 2013; Shanahan et al., 2015). Another experiment in 2012 found that patients with various mental health disorders reported higher mood and self-esteem when they participated in nature walks compared to indoor exercise (Barton et al., 2012). Since access to nature can serve as both a preventative measure and a component of treatment, it seems to be an excellent candidate for further public health research.
But what is it about nature that has such a profound effect on us? The primary shortcoming in proposals to incorporate nature into public health initiatives is a poor understanding of what kind of natural experience is helpful (Hartig et al., 2014; Shanahan et al., 2015). Since the rise of urbanization, human beings have lost much of the connection with nature we once had; in order to optimize an effort to bring the health effects of nature to cities, we need to better understand the mechanisms of these effects (White et al., 2013; Shanahan et al., 2015). Current research tends to focus on the visual system, but my walk in Giverny was about more than the sights; the smell of the flowers, the sound of the wind in the vines, and the warmth of the sun on my back all contributed to my experience. A recent attempt to translate nature into a mental health treatment failed for this very reason; participants viewing a simulated natural environment reported less stress reduction than controls who were in the actual outside environment and complained of a disconnect from “real nature” (Kjellgren & Buhrkall, 2010). A multi-sensory system study on the effects of nature could help bridge the gap between the clear benefits to be had and the best method to adapt them to an increasingly urban world (Franco et al., 2017).
The sounds of nature are considered to be especially pleasing; people prefer the sounds of nature to those of a city and many buy recordings of natural sounds to help them relax or sleep (Yang & Kang, 2007; Alvarsson et al., 2010). A group of researchers wanted to test the effect of natural sounds on stress levels after a challenging task by measuring skin conductance levels (a well known measure of stress) in a group that was played bird song and a group that was played other noises (Alvarsson et al., 2010; Cummings et al., 2007). They found that participants who were played nature sounds recovered faster from the stress of the task than groups who were played generic noise. This is only one experiment of many documenting the positive effects of nature sounds, but it demonstrates that there is a potential for auditory stimulation to become a part of alternative mental health treatment regimens.
The olfactory system is also plays an important role in a holistic experience of nature. The smells of nature can help to immerse us in an outdoor experience, and it has been demonstrated that certain odors evoke emotional responses (Glass et al., 2014; Franco et al., 2017). The popularity of essential oils as a natural remedy attests to this fact.
A 1998 study used an EEG to measure the effects of relaxing and alerting (lavender and rosemary respectively) essential oils on the brains of participants. The EEGs showed that participants who smelled the lavender exhibited more alpha and beta bands, a measure of relaxation, than they did before exposure. Participants who smelled the rosemary exhibited fewer alpha and beta bands than they did before exposure, indicating alertness. These results were supported by self-reporting from the participants and an anxiety questionnaire (Diego et al., 1998). The exact underlying mechanisms of these effects remain unclear, but suggest that olfaction is a key piece to the positive mood effects created by spending time in nature.
In isolation, each of these sensory systems has been demonstrated to contribute in some manner to the mental health of the test subject. In nature, we are experiencing sensory input to all of these systems and more, all at once. It would certainly be difficult to encapsulate all of these factors into an artificial natural environment in a setting like a hospital, but the research certainly makes a compelling case for the inclusion of parks or other natural environments in cities. In the meantime, my walk through Monet’s gardens was the refreshing stress relief I needed to finish up this study abroad program on a high note, and I’ll be making a concerted effort to find an equally inspiring spot back in Atlanta.
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Yang W & Kang J (2007) Soundscape and Sound Preferences in Urban Squares: A Case Study in Sheffield. Journal of Urban Design 10(1): 61-80
* Indicates that an article was published online, and DOI is given in place of page numbers