Our biophilic impulse

CAROL ROIG
Posted 1/23/19

It’s official: I have now lived in Sullivan County longer than I have lived anywhere else. Celebrating this happy milestone, I remember how forlorn but full of promise our derelict little house …

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Our biophilic impulse

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It’s official: I have now lived in Sullivan County longer than I have lived anywhere else. Celebrating this happy milestone, I remember how forlorn but full of promise our derelict little house looked in 1997. Friends were encouraging, acquaintances often incredulous, especially when my husband and I revealed that we were relocating from New York City “to the country” full time. I developed a shorthand explanation. “We need to see green around us, to get our hands in some dirt,” I would say. What I know now is that while we were restoring our neglected little house and patch of ground, our new home was restoring us, in ways we understood intuitively but which are now backed by formal science.

Take our craving for green. Japanese scientists have been studying the health benefits of a leisurely walk in the woods since 1982, when the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries devised the phrase shinrin-yoku, translated as “taking in the forest atmosphere.” In 2004, the Association of Therapeutic Effects of Forests was established, and shinrin-yoku is now a valued component of preventive health care in Japan. Similar organizations are working in Europe to foster cross-disciplinary research involving forestry and human health. In the U.S., the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy trains and certifies “forest bathing” guides, a practice you can take part in at the Woodloch Lodge in Hawley.

Practitioners emphasize that the goal of shinrin-yoku is not to engage in a strenuous hike but rather to relax, clear the mind and experience the natural world through the five senses.  Field studies have indicated that spending a short time among trees—or even viewing them from a distance—lowers blood pressure and pulse rate, reduces body levels of the stress hormone cortisol, accelerates healing, boosts parasympathetic nerve activity (associated with healthy digestion and rest) and lowers sympathetic nerve activity, which is the fight-or-flight response.  One health study showed that compounds called phytoncides released by trees boost the immune system by enhancing the activity of white blood cells called NK (natural killer) cells that fight cancer and other diseases. 

While shinrin-yoku encourages us to follow our inborn desire to get out into nature, biophilic design urges us to rethink our built environment to bring nature in.  Psychologist Erich Fromm is credited with first using the term biophilia to describe the basic human affinity for all living things—”love for humanity and nature.” Biologist E.O. Wilson and social ecologist Stephen Kellert built upon the idea, and Kellert pioneered the notion of biophilic architectural design as a professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. As championed by Wilson, Kellert and others, biophilic design urges us to rethink the built environment in ways that create a restorative atmosphere, with elements like access to daylight and fresh air, natural fabrics and building materials, indoor plants, building forms and imagery that evoke the natural world, and views and access to outdoor space with native trees and vegetation.

Biophilic design enhances our physical health and sense of well-being and can also make us more productive, according to new research.  It is proving especially relevant for schools, workplaces, hospitals and other care facilities, and in the hospitality industry. After all, the natural world has been the habitat of humans far longer than the modern innovation of city life. As Kellert wrote in his memoir, “Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World,” “We will never be truly healthy, satisfied or fulfilled if we live apart and alienated from the environment in which we evolved.” We don’t just enjoy these things, we need them in order to be whole and happy.

For more information on biophilic design, visit http://bit.ly/biophilicTRR. For more information on the physiological effects of shinrin-yoku, evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan, visit http://bit.ly/shinrinTRR and this study on the effects on middle-aged men, http://bit.ly/ForestBathingTRR.

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