Why nature is needed for 21st century brains

If modern living has left you feeling exhausted or on edge, there's no better natural remedy than nature itself.

Our brains were not built for this. The bright lights, the concrete, the smartphone, the 57 open tabs, the constant multi-tasking, the high-density isolation, the bewildering amount of choice, the unrelenting streams of information, the knowledge of all the bad things. It’s exhausting, it’s unnatural and it is a dramatic departure from how our brains have evolved over the past 300,000 years.

Neuroplasticity means our brains are very adaptable. We can build new connections and become more adept at all sorts of skills. We can master predictive text and emojis and video calls where we digitally transform ourselves into cats. We work it out. Bit by bit we rewire our brains. Because we live so much in a digital world, our brains are now wired very differently from our grandmothers’ brains. Our grandmothers’ brains are wired very differently from those who came thousands of years before.

While we can adapt, we can’t very successfully cheat nature. In 1880 Edison invented the electric lightbulb. Suddenly we were not bound by the schedule of that yellow orb in the sky. With this artificial light we could prolong the day and convince our brains it wasn’t time to go the bed. It turns out however that sleep, natural light and darkness are critical to good mental health.

Stuck in our homes, cars and office blocks during the day, many of us aren’t getting enough natural light and the vitamin D that helps support good mental health. By staying up late in light-filled spaces, watching TV or midnight scrolling, our sleep is suffering. Lack of quality sleep means our brains don’t have the opportunity to rest, recover and detox.

We know another huge factor that impacts mental health is movement. Unfortunately, it’s challenging to work a spreadsheet while jogging and with increasingly digitally dependent jobs and lifestyles, we are far more sedentary. While being able to tap a screen and have a delivery driver show up with pad Thai is a wonderful convenience, it comes with a mental health cost.

Technology has also allowed us to become less mindful. Take the simple act of walking. Previously it demanded that we consider every step so that our feet could land gently on undulating terrain, avoiding sharp rocks and sticks and things that bite. Then we invented footpaths and Nike Airs and we became less mindful about how we walked. One day we decided to take our phone along. We put on podcasts, scrolled Insta and became largely oblivious to our surrounding environment.

Another major challenge of the digital age is the type and volume of information our brains have to process. Often, we are multi-tasking, rapidly switching our attention between different screens, pop-ups and digital notifications. This is taxing on our brains and can lead to us feeling mentally exhausted.

The apps we subscribe to are perfect addiction machines, designed to mine our attention, play on our anxieties and fill our feeds with material that provokes an emotional response. Regularly we are exposed to the worst of the world; tragedies, disasters and all sorts of things that make our blood boil. When not outraged, we are often comparing ourselves against impossible ideals and trying to curate our own picture-perfect online presence. It’s yet another big challenge that technology has placed on our brains.

As the pace of technological innovation accelerates, we all need to find ways to cope. A growing body of research suggests nature can provide a very useful antidote to 21st century living.

Step into a natural space and your brain will immediately work in different ways. Breathing in you may notice the fragrance of trees and flowers. As these fragrance molecules dance upon your brain, you may notice a feeling of relaxation.

Watch a rainbow lorikeet streak through the sky and you may be struck be a feeling of beauty and wonder that fills you up in a very different way to watching a YouTube video.

Feel the earth beneath your feet and you feel grounded and connected in a way that isn’t possible on social media.

Returning to nature may seem simplistic or some weird hippy remedy. Nature therapy is however becoming a whole lot more mainstream as the research builds on its numerous benefits.

Spending time in natural settings can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. The concept of “forest bathing” in Japan, known as Shinrin-yoku, involves immersing oneself in a forest to improve well-being. It has been associated with lowered cortisol levels, enhanced mood and improved concentration.

Exposure to nature also fosters increased creativity and cognitive functioning. Physical activities in natural environments have even been shown to boost self-esteem and reduce symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

For those of us living modern urban lifestyles, it is crucial we find balance. How do we make technology work for us? How do we enjoy its benefits while protecting our brains. How do we maintain the connection with nature that has sustained us forever?

One of the simplest things we can do is to pause. Have a moment free from all the distractions to check in with your human animal. In this moment what do you need? Do you need to move? Do you need to stretch? Do you need water? Do you need fresh air? Do you need a hug? Do you need a rest? Do you need a moment away from the 57 open tabs?

When we stop and pay attention, we begin taking all these small restorative acts of self-care very naturally. Without the pause, we push through. We start to feel wiped, weary and a whole lot less human.

Once we’re more in touch with ourselves, many of us decide that what we could really use is some time away from tech. Digital detoxes take many forms. They can involve shutting down social media accounts, going for a walk without your phone, declaring your weekend device free or limiting the amount of time you spend on tech. While it may be hard at first, when we are not constantly enmeshed in this digital world, we may start to realise there are other ways of being.

When we start to examine our needs, we may find ourselves craving more connectedness. Humans are social animals and its very natural to want to be with others who we can laugh, play and share with. This social connection is a powerful contributor to mental health.

When we look beyond our digital universe, we will also discover an incredible natural world that we are part of. Getting out in it nourishes us. It feeds our brains with wonder and awe. It takes us outside of 21st century complexity. It gives us space to be. It fosters a sense of interconnectedness, central to our wellbeing.

While we may conceive all sorts of treatments to mask the effects of modern living, it’s hard to imagine any so perfect as nature itself. By pausing, examining our own human needs and returning to those natural things that have long served us so well, we can all begin to live in a more balanced and truly connected way.