Your Brain on Nature
In the shadow of the great pandemic of the 21st century, there has been a massive swing away from working in the office in favor of working from home—or almost anywhere, really. I believe that one of the factors driving this new employee-driven workplace trend is the recognition that our environment is an integral part of our professional performance, a truth strongly supported by emerging brain science.
As an executive coach, I ensure that each of the highly successful senior leaders with whom I work understand and respect our universal context: that we are natural beings, created within natural laws and a natural world. We forget this at our peril.
The human brain drives our working performance and was forged by Mother Nature over hundreds of millions of years in her natural laboratory in a systematic and disciplined process we call evolution. Our brilliance as a species is intimately linked with our natural environment, and the rules of our engagement with nature are simple.
Three major principles underpin our relationship with nature:
- When we understand our evolutionary context and our natural design, we can easily determine the right things to do for our body. It’s an ingenious design, where the incentive and the reward are the same: health and happiness.
- We are natural beings, integrated into a vast ecosystem of animals, vegetables, and minerals. When we attempt to isolate ourselves from this system, we put our physical, emotional, and mental well-being at substantial risk.
- The human brain is our greatest asset, differentiating us from all other life forms. This critical organ is at the center of our relationship with our environment and plays a massive role in our health and happiness.
Today, we have increasing scientific evidence demonstrating the benefits of nature for our mental and emotional health. The value of green space (sometimes dubbed “Vitamin G”) and blue space (ranging from massive oceans to tiny ponds and office water features) has been documented in great detail. Many invisible chemicals and aromas (known as phytoncides) have delicate benefits on our cognitive and emotional functioning. Aromatherapy, gardening and “wilderness therapy,” pet ownership, and “brain food” are among the many therapeutic approaches being researched today that harness the power of nature for our benefit.
So, what do we do to capitalize on the vast body of emerging evidence that green spaces, blue spaces, and every natural environment in between is good for us?
Go to nature. Especially now, as we move through this global pandemic, we should be outside more. We should be taking advantage of “green exercise.” Many of us have moved away from constrained indoor exercise spaces, initially forced to by shutdowns and later perhaps choosing to because of newly discovered preference. Frankly, I sincerely hope that you stay outside for your exercise in future, even as we resume normal life—it’s so much better for your mind and body.
And while you’re at it, why not work outside? A brisk walk through nature as you talk to a colleague or listening to the birds chirp as you sit on a bench with your laptop will increase your mental clarity and productivity. Or you could compose emails under the spreading canopy of your favorite tree. Or practice your next big presentation with the squirrels and the birds as your audience.
Why not eat meals outside, too? You can please all your senses and find great tranquility by savoring your food in the great outdoors—something made easier by the increase in outdoor seating as a result of the pandemic.
Bring nature to you. Put green and blue features into your home and office. Ask office managers to build a courtyard for your workplace. Petition city planners to spend your tax dollars on natural features in your town or city. Vote for leaders who support these uplifting initiatives.
And if they won’t, stay home! Yes, stay home, and tell them why. Tell them that not only can you get more work done at home but you can take a walk outside between meetings in your carefully nurtured green space. You can more easily maintain your physical health, you’ll be more emotionally resilient, and your mental productivity will go up noticeably.
That should make them happy…and, even better, you!
(If you’re looking for a thorough overview of our current scientific knowledge on the impact of the natural environment on our human brains, you may enjoy Eva Selhub and Alan Logan’s book Your Brain on Nature.)
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced a personal health and happiness awakening. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of stress, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create profound (and often hidden) distress, and prevent us from reaching our innate potential.
Today, Roddy is an executive coach and author dedicated to helping others unlock their full potential throughout their lives by applying compassionate neuroscience and sharing his unique approach to Personal Mastery™.