@runtothefinish
Amanda Brooks
Mixes in all things running, fitness and living active!
The Science of Hiking – James Horrox – Mediummedium.com - Harvard physician Paul Dudley White, the ‘father of American cardiology’, believed that a brisk, five mile walk every day is as good a remedy for a restless mind as anything the worlds of medicine and psychology have to offer. Many literary notables, from Charles Dickens to Will Self, have written at length on the restorative effects of their peregrinations through the urban jungle, but as Dr. White well understood, there is something unique about walking in natural surroundings that no amount of urban wandering can approximate. George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry David Thoreau and countless other writers have remarked on the effects of time spent in nature on our intellectual and creative faculties. The physicist Werner Heisenberg was a keen hiker, as were Paul Dirac, Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner, all of whom reported having come to key scientific discoveries while out walking in the hills. For the English Romantics, through whose influence wandering the countryside à pied became a popular leisure pursuit in England in the late 1700s, immersion in nature was not only a source of literary inspiration (in + spirare — ‘to breathe in’), but fundamental to the creative process. William Godwin “made whole books” as he walked. Across the Channel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who spent much of his youth wandering the hills of Central Europe, found in the natural world a clarity of thought that eluded him amid the bustle of urban life. “Cities”, Rousseau concluded, were “the abyss of the human species”. Over the last few decades, the restorative effects of nature — understood intuitively by writers and artists for centuries— have become a key focus of scientific research. With more than 50% of the world’s population now living in cities, interest in the ramifications of our increasing alienation from the natural world has led to an increased understanding of the importance of nature exposure in terms of its impact on our psychological well-being. A spate of studies have looked in particular at an apparent link between the rapid and widespread urbanisation that has occurred across the world over the last half-century and a marked rise in instances of mental illness over the same period. The exact cause of this correlation is still unknown, but one theory holds that a decline in the amount of contact we have with the natural world may have something to do with it. This was the hypothesis of a 2015 study led by Gregory Bratman of Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology, who sought to establish what exactly it is that might connect reduced contact with nature to the development of psychological disorders. One explanation, Bratman suggests, could be the impact of nature exposure on ‘rumination’, a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought focused on negative aspects of the self, known to be a risk factor for depression and other forms of mental illness. Bratman and his colleagues divided a cohort of city-dwellers into two groups, and asked each to take a 90-minute walk — one through a grassy area near the Stanford University campus, the other along a busy main road in Palo Alto. Brain scans conducted on those who walked through the natural setting showed reduced neural activity in the specific area of the brain responsible for self-focused behavioural withdrawal associated with the development of mental illness. Those who walked through the urban setting showed no such effects, leading the authors to conclude that even a brief excursion in verdant surroundings substantially decreases obsessive, negative thoughts. Bratman’s study follows in a tradition of scholarship rooted in a school of thought known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART).
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