Most people who know me know of my fondness for sunrises. (See https://johnbecton.blog/2019/11/13/five-days-of-beach-sunrises/ ) Watching the sun rise, as I do often, makes me feel good. I’ve recently been not surprised to learn that the benefits are not only emotional, but also physical.
For me and many others, a sunrise evokes a sense of awe. Experiences of awe, medical scientists tell us, significantly reduce unhealthy levels of cytokines, which are associated with disease, depression and ill health. Sources of awe are certainly not limited to nature (music and art, for example), but here I want to focus on nature.
I recently read about some of the ways experiences in nature have been shown to benefit us physically. There was a lot more to the article — “Rewilding Our Minds,” Lucy Jones, The American Scholar, Summer 2021 — but here are some points I gleaned.
–Exposure to certain chemicals emitted by trees and other plants significantly increases natural killer cell activity, which helps fight infection and cancer. “Even just looking at a natural scene can decrease levels of inflammatory cytokines.”
–Studies suggest that in natural areas, our parasympathetic nervous system is more likely to be activated. This slows the heart and helps us feel calm. It is associated with better sleep, feeling of contentment and safety, as well as high resting levels, enhanced emotional regulation, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
–You know how great the air smells after rain? You’re not just smelling the clean earth. Oil from soil and possibly plants is in the air, triggering brain activity associated with calmness and relaxation.
–Getting your hands dirty is also beneficial. When you dig in the dirt, you pick up microbes (mycobacteriun vaccae) that activate serotonin neurons, associated with mood and well-being. “The microorganism also increased stress resilience and could suppress inappropriate inflammation within cells.”
As I noted above the article deals with a lot more than the points I’ve listed here. This is just a brief summary of what I found especially interesting and useful. If you want to read the article itself, here’s a link: https://theamericanscholar.org/rewilding-our-minds/
The article writer’s source comprises “robust evidence based on countless studies from scientists in various disciplines from countries across the world,” some of which she cites specifically. Were it a scientific journal article, there would have been countless footnotes. Were I writing a graduate-school paper, I would dig down to primary sources, rather than relying only on this secondary source. I think, however, we’re fine in this context. I haven’t been graded for years on anything by anyone, other than myself. And my therapist suggests (and by “suggests,” I mean “insists”) that I stop doing so.