Editorial: It’s in My Nature | AIChE

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Editorial: It’s in My Nature

Again?!? That was the reaction of some of the editors when I said I was writing this editorial about nature. CEP readers may know that I love being outside in nature (because I have written on this theme before). This time, my motivation is a press release entitled “Stressed? Take a 20-minute nature pill,” which I came upon as I was getting ready to leave for my latest Arizona hiking vacation. Considering that June is Great Outdoors Month, this seems like a good time to revisit the topic.

A large body of research has documented that spending time in nature provides a wide variety of benefits. For instance, it improves short-term memory; lowers blood pressure; increases levels of Vitamin D (which strengthens bones and reduces the risk of cancer and diabetes); reduces inflammation; boosts the immune system; improves sleep; protects vision (by reducing the risk of developing myopia, or nearsightedness); and a host of others. My vacation to the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and Phoenix was designed to take advantage of nature’s ability to reduces stress.

Several studies have found that experiencing nature reduces the level of the stress hormone cortisol in participants’ saliva. “We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us,” says MaryCarol Hunter, a professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the Univ. of Michigan. Hunter and her colleagues asked urban dwellers to have a nature experience (NE) — defined as anywhere outside that, in the opinion of the participant, included a sufficiency of natural elements to feel like a nature interaction — for ten minutes or more at least three times a week over an eight-week period. Participants were able to self-medicate, i.e., they could adjust the activity, place, time of day, and duration of the NE pill in response to changing daily circumstances. “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature,” Hunter reports. She adds that “healthcare practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule of thumb on what to put in a nature-pill prescription.”

David Strayer, a psychologist at the Univ. of Utah, offers another take on the dose-response effects of nature — what he calls the three-day effect. Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, joined him and a group of students on a camping trip. Our brains, he said, are easily fatigued. “When we slow down, stop the busywork, and take in beautiful natural surroundings, not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves, too.” Strayer demonstrated that with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50% better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. “On the third day, my senses recalibrate — I smell things and hear things I didn’t before,” he said. “Being in the moment for two or three days seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.”

Strayer also reported that on the camping trip his students gave much better presentations. So, if you plan to speak at an AIChE meeting, consider taking a few vacation days before the conference to visit a nearby national park or wilderness area. For example, the 2022 AIChE Annual Meeting will be held in Phoenix, AZ — why not spend the week before in the Grand Canyon and Sedona?


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