STEPHEN AND RACHEL KAPLAN HAVE FOUND THAT THE CURE FOR WHAT AILS YOU COULD BE AS SIMPLE AS
A walk in the woods
Professor Rachel Kaplan’s office at U-M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment looks out over a large oak tree. Potted plants crowd her window sill. Beyond these small patches of nature loom the buildings of central campus. But, she says, a little bit of naturegoes a long way.
She would know. Kaplan and her husband, professor Stephen Kaplan, were among the first academics to study the psychological benefits of nature. Colleagues and collaborators for decades, they have shown that natural settings—trees, grass, gardens, and the like—have a profound, positive impact on both mental and physical health.
Both Kaplans hold joint appointments: Rachel in SNRE and Psychology, Stephen in Psychology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. They both take particular pride in graduate students they have mentored over the years. Students working with the Kaplans have made some striking discoveries:
• Studies by Bernadine Cimprich showed that the psychological health of cancer patients “improved dramatically" after they spent 20 minutes a day, three days a week, doing restorative activities such as gardening or walking in the woods. A control group that did not do the activities showed notably less improvement.
• Studies by Frances Kuo and William Sullivan found that residents of public housing projects who live near trees “showed all kinds of benefits," says Stephen. “More civility, less aggression—and girls were more likely to study" their schoolwork.
• A study of AIDS caregivers by Lisa Canin found that the single most powerful factor in avoiding stress-related burnout was “locomotion in nature"—such as walking, running, biking, or canoeing. (The quickest route to burnout was watching television.)
Better yet, says Rachel, the natural setting “doesn’t have to be big or pristine" to have a positive effect. “Most of all, it has to be nearby." A study by Ernest Moore of prisoners in Milan, Michigan, showed that simply having a view of farmland from a prison cell reduced inmates’ need for health care.
What’s so powerful about nature? Stephen theorizes that it comes down to brain function. The source of much mental distress, he says, is overuse of “directed attention"—such as concentrating on work. “Sustained directed attention is difficult and fatiguing. When people talk about mental fatigue, what is actually fatigued is not their mind as a whole, but their capacity to direct attention." And it can make people “distractible and irritable."
To escape the discomforts of mental fatigue, people often turn to activities that “capture" their attention. They find external events to distract them, so they don’t have to concentrate so hard. Watching TV, for instance, requires little willpower: the programs do the work, and the brain follows along. Similarly, says Stephen, “many people find an auto race fascinating." Fast motion, loud noises, and smells captivate the brain.
The Kaplans refer to activities like watching TV or sporting events as “hard fascination." The stimuli are loud, bright, and commanding. The activities are engaging and fun, but they don’t allow for mental rest.
Soft fascination, on the other hand, is the kind of stimulation one finds on, say, a stroll along the beach or in the woods. Nothing overwhelms the attention, says Stephen, “and the beauty provides pleasure that complements the gentle stimulation." The brain can soak up pleasing images, but it can also wander, reflect, and recuperate.
Most people, say the Kaplans, intuitively know this. But often, they either don’t do it, or they may not have opportunities to get out in nature. That’s too bad, because the Kaplans have shown that if you’re upset, frazzled, or suffering, an easygoing walk in the woods or even along a tree-lined street is one of the best things you can do for yourself.