Your brain, nature, and NWL

March 19, 2014

I recently attended a conference in Boston called Engaging 21st Century Minds: Using Brain Science, Technology, Nature And Collaboration For Deeper Learning

While the title may not immediately call Northwaters & Langskib to mind, I was struck by how much scientific research is validating what we do at Northwaters and Langskib.

One interesting presenter was Dr. Alan Logan who along with Harvard physician Eva Selhub has published a book called “Your Brain on Nature.” He presented research showing that exposure to natural environments is associated with lower stress levels, as measured in many different ways.

He also said that: “Less contact with nature, particularly in one’s young years, appears to remove a layer of protection against psychological stress and opportunity for cognitive rejuvenation. Research suggests also that nature deprivation may have wide-ranging effects on the immune system. In the big picture, our turn away from nature is associated with less empathy and attraction to nature and, in turn, less interest in environmental efforts related to nature. An obvious concern is that a massive withdrawal from nature will immunize us against empathic views of nature. Sustainability of the planet is not merely about being a good citizen and recycling; it is ultimately about maintaining an intimate relationship with nature. Research shows that in order to truly care about “being green,” one must actually have meaningful exposure to nature. “

At NWL we have believed this to be true for many years. We see a major shift in people’s way of being when they return from weeks on trail. These ideas are also reflected in our organizations core values.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Richard Louv, the author of The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in the Virtual Age (2012) and Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (2008). When last Child in The Woods came out we at NWL knew that Louv got it when he said “Not that long ago, summer camp was a place where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions. As likely as not today, “summer camp” is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp. For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear—to ignore. A recent television ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain stream—while in the backseat two children watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.”

In his address and his new book The Nature Principle, Louv said “The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”

Louv talks about the need to balance our time with technology and time in nature. He is not anti technology as he says but points out many ways in which our contemporary culture has gotten out of balance. This is an interview that he did on Canadian TV about the need to get outside.

Another relevant Keynote address was by Dr. John Ratey, from Harvard, whose speech was titled Go Wild: Promoting Play, Nature and Exercise in Our Schools. Ratey had numerous examples of the proven links between exercise, wildness, and cognitive development. His new book is Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization . He writes about the importance of movement for overall well-being. He also makes a strong point that exercise is better than prozac and ritalin for helping people with depression and ADHD.

Learning and The Brain conference was a great place to hear what is happening at the cutting edge of neuroscience research as it applies to education. It was nice to have the work that we do with kids at NWL validated by scientific research.

-Michael Jarvis, Director of Langskib

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