Somewhere during the American experience, between Teddy Roosevelt and color TV, being outdoors and maybe even working up a sweat started to lose its universal appeal. There remain those who fetishize the outdoors, from Ted Nugent to REI shoppers, and the urge to connect with nature never vanished. But as Americans became more urban and more cocooned in their cars and air conditioning, the values of nature were honored more by their absence than in their activities.
The price of this disconnect is usually tallied via our bodies, with a simple equation that a lack of outdoor activity must surely be connected with the nation’s growing waistline and obesity-related maladies like diabetes. There’s an always-growing corpus of academic work that does make that correlation, and even causation, explicit. Last month, for example, a policy brief from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research noted that in California as a whole, about a third as many kids who live near parks get in an hour of physical activity a day (the recommended daily threshold) at least five times a week compared to kids who can’t get to a park easily.
But increasingly, researchers are examining the impact of the natural world on our minds. (At Pacific Standard, for example, we've reported on the benefits of biophilic design, how nature makes us nicer or improves our attention span, the rise of attention restoration theory, or even how just looking at a picture of the outdoors can blunt the harsh edges of stress.)
Last week, to cite one well-publicizedrecent study, Scottish researchers outfitted pedestrians with mobile electroencephalographs and set them loose for 25-minute strolls in Edinburgh. Those whose paths wended through green spaces “showed evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher meditation” based on EEG readings, the academics wrote, adding a quantitative page to the annals of similar qualitative “restorative literature.”
These recent works add firepower to the longstanding cannonade of writer Richard Louv, who summarized the disconnect as “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 bestseller, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. That book and his 2011 volume, The Nature Principle, are both study-filled dialectics on why it’s important to step outside much more frequently.
Louv, who described himself as an “advocacy journalist” (he co-founded the Children & Nature Network) when we spoke last year, acknowledges that his rubric of “nature-deficit disorder” is a two-edged sword, both making the idea accessible and yet turning it into a new-agey pathology at the same time. But use the word “disorder” and it conjures the DSM and pharmaceuticals and longitudinal studies and, well, rigorous vetting.
Even people who might agree that there is a “deficit” might balk over “disorder.” When the U.K. National Trust invoked Louv’s “useful shorthand” repeatedly in a 28-page call to arms to “reverse this trend towards a sedentary, indoor childhood,” journalist Aleks Krotoski wondered if medicalizing the issue wasn’t just a sly way to commercialize it:
My problem is with the implied consequences of this ‘disorder,’ presented in a one-sided way and aimed at raising awareness among an already concerned demographic in the hope that they will reach deep into their pockets and donate their support to an institution that is promoting what is, as many accept, commonsense.
Louv acknowledges both strands—raising awareness and common sense—in his decision to use the phrase. When Last Child was published, ”I said very clearly, this is not a known medical diagnosis. This is, though, a way to look at this issue in a way that we can understand. And when I say that phrase people know exactly what it is, parents know what it is. I don’t have to write a long white paper.”
The decision to spotlight the disorder, which Louv said he initially resisted as making his book a bumper sticker—“I was an investigative journalist and all”—has paid dividends. Saying he’d endorse any phrase that keeps people’s attention on this issue, “I know that this one, to my surprise, has worked and much of that point/counter-point, much of that debate, might not be happening without that phrase in the first place.”
But maybe a little medicalization might be in order. As he’s told a gathering of the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, “If you think that writing a tongue-in-cheek, or an actually serious, prescription to 'go outside and have some exercise,' would do some good, then please do it.”
WHILE SOME MIGHT BRIDLE at the quasi-science of nature-deficit disorder or quail at cherry-picking research, many putative Aldo Leopolds have traded in what might charitably be called mysticism over the years. His evidence-based approach is necessary tonic, Louv says, in an arena he calls “terribly understudied.” The historic dearth of such scholarship, he believes, “says a lot about the priorities of science:” Since nature studies are unlikely to produce a profitable product, they get short shrift.
Of late, the last dozen years of so, Louv says he’s seen an increasing number of researchers and policy wonks studying humans and nature. Still, he finds many in academe have a “blind spot” about how natural environments might shape behavior and brain architecture, pointing out how many animal studies in medicine and psychology take place in unnatural environments for the animals, which may or may not stress out the beasts and affect the study outcomes.
Some of the nature research that does take place is revelatory, but much of it reinforces the maternal injunction to go outside and play; it’s good for you.
“There are no new ideas, really,” Louv suggests, but there is new evidence. Citing the spate of park building in the early 1900s, he notes, “They didn’t have a lot of science to back up the idea that parks were good for people and that nature, [even] urban nature, was restorative. Those parks, including Central Park, were supported by industrialists who wanted healthier and more productive workers. So again this isn’t new knowledge. … In a sense, it’s lost information, forgotten information, whether it’s urban design or how families conduct themselves.”