Gardening for Health
The Proven Power of Nature continued...
More recently, studies presented at the 1999 Culture, Health,
and the Arts World Symposium in England also found beneficial effects of
looking at nature. In one study, conducted in Uppsala, Sweden, 160
postoperative heart patients were asked to look at a landscape, an abstract art
work, or no picture. Those who looked at the landscape had lower anxiety,
required less pain medicine, and spent a day less in the hospital than the
control group patients.
The abstract art, however, made patients feel sicker. The
health outcomes of those viewing the abstract art was worse than if they saw no
art at all. They were more anxious and initially took more pain killers than
the control patients.
Yet other studies have found that looking at scenes of nature
can produce a decline in systolic blood pressure in five minutes or less, even
if the person is only looking at a poster of nature, Ulrich says. Looking at
nature, he also has found, can aid recovery from stress as measured by changes
in brain electrical activity, muscle tension, respiration, and shifts in
emotional states, all of which may be linked to better immune function. That,
in turn, can protect people from disease and help them recover if they are
sick. According to Ulrich, it is even possible that humans are
"hard-wired" through evolution to positively respond to certain
environments -- most notably caring human faces, certain views of nature, and
music in certain keys.
"It is clear," Ulrich says, "that the mind does
How Nature Works Its Charms
One reason nature may be so successful at reducing stress is
that it puts the mind in a state similar to meditation, according to Clare
Cooper Marcus, MA, MCP, professor emerita from the University of California at
Berkeley, and one of the founders of the field of environmental psychology.
"When you are looking intensely at something, or you bend down to smell
something, you bypass the [analytical] function of the mind." You naturally
stop thinking, obsessing, worrying. Your senses are awakened, which brings you
into the present moment, and this has been shown to be very effective at
reducing stress, says Marcus, drawing on her own observations.
There are other benefits to being in nature as well, including
exercise, exposure to vitamin D from sunshine, and the capacity of light to
counter seasonal depression. And for people in restricted environments or with
chronic conditions, the payoffs may even be greater, says Richard Zeisel,
president of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care in Lexington, Mass., a company that
manages living-treatment residences for people with Alzheimer's disease.
"You can either upset people and then give them drugs to relax them, or you
can not upset them in the first place."
Hearthstone's approach, in which gardens are an integral part
of the residences, dramatically decreases anxiety, agitation, aggression, and
social withdrawal among patients, and thus the need for antipsychotic drugs.
"It's a practical question: would we rather spend money on drugs, or would
we rather spend money on flowers?" Zeisel says.