Experiencing Nature Makes Us More Forward-Thinking
To get some perspective on daily troubles, lots of people escape to the outdoors – maybe a weekend bike ride, a fishing trip or a hike – to clear their minds. And now there’s some scientific evidence that it actually helps. Researchers have found that looking at natural landscapes makes people more forward-thinking in their decision-making.
The researchers started by preparing two different photographic slideshows – one depicting lush green natural landscapes, the other depicting urban environments. The team then recruited 47 volunteers and assigned each volunteer to one of the slideshow rooms at random. In each room, volunteers listened to an audio script encouraging them to become immersed in the environment shown in the photographs.
After each of the volunteers had watched one or the other of the slideshows, the researchers offered them a choice between two types of financial reward: 100 euros ($135) now, or a larger sum in 90 days’ time. And to test just how willing each participant was to wait for a reward, the researchers ratcheted the amount of the delayed reward upward in 10-euro ($13) increments until each volunteer chose it over the immediate reward.
As you might expect, very few of the volunteers chose to wait 90 days for 110 euros when they could have 100 euros right now – and on the other hand, almost all of them were willing to wait 90 days for 150 euros or more.
When the value of the delayed reward fell in between these two figures, though, a clear distinction became apparent. Participants who’d viewed the natural-scene slideshows were far more willing to wait for an extra 20, 30 or 40 euros than were the ones who’d seen urban scenes – hinting that their exposure to natural beauty may have made them more amenable to delayed gratification.
Pace of Nature
To pinpoint this effect, the researchers conducted additional experiments. In one, they offered immediate or delayed rewards to three groups of volunteers – a group who’d viewed photos of natural scenes, a group who’d viewed urban photos, and a group who didn’t view any photos at all. In another, they sent one group of volunteers to take a walk in a forested city park and sent the other to hang out in a heavily developed business district, offering similar reward choices afterward.
These subsequent experiments confirmed the team’s results: Participants who’d spent time viewing or exploring nature had the lowest thresholds for delaying future reward, implying that their exposure to natural scenes made them more inclined to care for the future. The results appear this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The researchers say the psychological benefit could be because nature moves at a slower pace overall, while city life relentlessly bombards us with pressure to acquire status, material goods and mates. When we take a step back and see the environment as a whole, all those tiny struggles vanish into the grand timescales of the Earth itself.
As the old Greek proverb says, A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. We might all be doing our grandchildren a favor if we spend less time running the rat race, and more time planting those trees.
FINDING OUR PLACE IN TIME : The New Nature Movement
In the mid-1960s, in Kansas, my best friend Pete and I would often walk over to Red Hoth’s house. Red, who was in his 60s, had suffered a stroke in 1952, while fishing.
He was paralyzed from the neck down, except for one arm. Pete visited Red because of compassion; I went for the fishing stories. Red would spin these stories so vividly that we were transported to a north woods lake, the early morning mist rising around the boat, his bed.
On one of our last visits, we arrived to find a large tackle box and a set of bamboo fly rods at the foot of Red’s bed. He gave all of his old gear, which he loved, to us.
“Years passed. So did Red. Piece by piece, most of the equipment disappeared except for this last tin canister, and its contents, which had not been used in nearly 40 years.
One day, I drove my two boys, then ages 2 and 8, to a nearby lake. We spent the afternoon walking along the bank. They ran ahead, in their life jackets, sometimes fishing. The younger boy with a lead weight on a line tied to the tip of a 2-foot rod. Both boys dug along the bank for bugs or threw rocks in the water. Fortunately, there were no other anglers around.
I was using a new fly rod. I did not know much about fly-fishing, but I had discovered the sense of connectedness that it gives, in place, across generations and in time.
Mothers, connected by the umbilical cord to past and future, are blessed with more frequent biological reminders of the natural cycles and rhythms of time, nature and the generations. Finding one’s place in generational time is part of fatherhood, too.
For both genders, though not for everyone, fishing helps. So does walking with a daughter or son through the peculiar silence of snow falling, or through birding, cloud spotting, stargazing, or wild watching.
Nature preschools and kindergartens: Getting kids moving and learning
IN THE BACK OF THE FARMHOUSE at Drumlin Farm Community Preschool in Lincoln sit five chickens surrounded by a gaggle of preschoolers eyes wide, waiting. The teacher opens the egg box door, and the students, staying slow and small like they were taught, peer in.
“And when they find an egg there,” says Paula Goodwin, director of the school, ” we ask them to make a nest with their hand, and they very gently pass the egg from one to another. And it’s a very special time, because they don’t need a lot of special instructions except to look for a child whose hands are in the shape of a nest. So it isn’t a formal sharing lesson, but each child cherishes that egg and very gently passes it to the next person without question. It’s one of the magical moments in the school year. They are so generous with sharing the egg, and they may not have even learned each other,s names yet.”
Drumlin is a nature- and farm-based preschool, which means that rain or shine, maybe not sleet but definitely snow and temperatures down to 15 degrees, the 14 3- to 5-year-olds are outside learning math, science, language, and how to be curious. Visiting captive wildlife, doing farm chores, and taking part in planting activities provide opportunities for all kinds of learning. “Every child’s experience is different,” Goodwin says, “but generally it’s a sense of the animals they see and the plants around them and just being outside.”