8 Sensory and Extra-Sensory Experiences of Nature
What is it that you feel when you are in nature?
A Longing to Be in Real Nature
Nature as therapy has long held a place in medicine. Hippocrates extolled the necessity of “airs, waters, and places.” Theodore Roosevelt was sent to a ranch to work roping horses and to experience the cure of rural scenery. As therapy, the natural environment is best experienced real.
Researchers have compared the benefits of relaxation either in a natural environment or in a simulated environment. Participants benefitted from the relaxation in either intervention. However, when in the simulated natural environment, participants reported a “sense of being cut off from nature’s sensory input” and “a longing to be in real nature.”
So what is it about nature, that provides healing? Science is starting to unpack what we already know. We feel good after a day spent idling through a park or hiking a mountain trail. Our bodies grow and heal not only via our traditional senses but also through extra-sensory experiences.
Negative ions are no longer the domain of aging hippies. Electrically negative air particles are dense in forests and around waterfalls. Plants directly produce negative air ions and thunder charges the air. We feel more alive and less stressed when feeling the air after a thunderstorm.
Negative ions have been shown to improve immunity, mood, and alertness. Both Buddha and Muhammad are said to have sat under a tree as part of their journey to enlightenment. I would not venture to argue whether their enlightenment was due to a higher power or whether the negative ions from the tree imparted sudden clarity.
Microbes, whether eaten as part of our food, breathed in through the air, or attached to our skin have a direct effect on our health. The hygiene hypothesis links the continuous cleaning of our environment, wiping out every micro-organism possible, with the ill-health and poor immunity of modern society. On the contrary, healthy microbial communities in and on us are enhance every aspect of our lives, from our mental health to our immunity.
We all love a beautiful view. Researchers know that patients admitted to hospital do better when they are in a room with a view. What is not known is whether the improvement in overall health that comes with a view is due to the colors of nature, the shapes, or the variety.
Prof. Richard Taylor, in his article for The Conversation, explores whether it is fractals that provide the pleasure in the visual experience of nature. Fractals are the recurring patterns found in nature; those of a fern leaf, a sea shell, or the shape of a tree.
Fractals are linked to sacred geometry and are used in applied mathematics for modeling a “variety of phenomena from physical objects to the behavior of the stock market.” Perhaps our brain instantly responds to these patterns inducing calm and insight.
Natural sounds are considered to be the most complex types of sound. In contrast to the noise pollution that we are increasingly exposed to, natural sounds induce calmness and serenity. Furthermore, natural sounds ground us to our place, serving as a link to our environment.
We all know that emotions and odor are connected. Just two examples indicate the impact of natural smells. The smell of summer air has been shown to improve happiness and the odor from flowering plants increases calmness, alertness, and mood.
In nature, animal petting has been found to improve relaxation and comfort. This possibly occurs through the release of the love hormone, oxytocin. The effects of running your hands through sand, lying on grass, and touching tree trunks are yet to be studied. The answers may be experienced intuitively when we touch nature.
Taste links us directly to nature. Up until recently, even processed food started in nature. Organic food can taste better than non-organic food and eating is generally associated with positive emotions. Perhaps in ancient history, the feel-good factor of eating kept us alive. I get the impression that laboratory-grown food is not going to do the same for us.
Phytoncides are substances that plants emit to protect themselves from decay by bacteria or attack by herbivores. When in the vicinity of plants we breathe in these compounds, completely unaware of their presence. Phytoncides are thought to be a crucial part of forest-bathing. They are thought to induce relaxation and improve cognitive performance. Increasing research indicates that these compounds improve our immunity and protect us from infection.
Hugging a tree is science-based and provides multiple benefits to the humans that have evolved with them.
Go out, hug, smell and listen to a tree; get your hands dirty. Your body and soul will love you for it.