(French original, “Pourquoi la nature nous fait-elle du bien?” published in Rhizome, 2022/1 (N° 82), pp. 13-14)
In 1984, the journal Science published a study showing that hospital patients who were assigned a room with a view of a natural scene had shorter postoperative stays, received less negative feedback in nurses’ notes, and consumed fewer strong painkillers than patients hospitalised for the same care with windows overlooking a brick wall. While the hypothesis of a link between nature exposure and human well-being has long been accepted, this study by Roger Ulrich, still widely cited today, marked a turning point. The effects, documented through the monitoring of certain indicators, may seem all the more surprising since the relationship with nature observed in the study is based above all on a visual relationship. So could such simple contact with nature produce positive effects on people’s health?
Research on these effects has developed considerably since then, and the results of recent studies conducted in fields as varied as medicine, psychology and cognitive science are now shedding new light on this theme. The renewal of these approaches takes into account the social and environmental upheavals of recent decades that have repercussions on natural environments and our interactions with living organisms.
From observing the benefits of exposure to nature…
The subject of the benefits associated with nature goes far beyond health issues, as it is commonly conceived. The presence of nature in the ecological sense of the term – that is, the variety of life forms on this planet and all the geophysical and chemical components that support their spatial and temporal dynamics – is above all necessary for human life. It is not a question here of detailing all the benefits – far too numerous and complex – nature provides for humans, but rather to discuss more precisely the health processes initiated by immediate contact with a natural environment or natural elements. Thus, many studies document the benefits of exposure to nature.
The main physiological effects observed indicate an increase in parasympathetic nerve activity (decrease in heart rate, decrease in blood pressure…) and a decrease in sympathetic nerve activity associated with stressful situations (decreased levels of salivary cortisol, adrenaline and decreased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex). The physiological reduction of stress is accompanied by a reduction in psychological risk factors and the burden of certain stress-related mental illnesses. Exposure to nature is also associated with lower incidences of other conditions, such as anxiety disorders and depression. More broadly, the relationship with nature contributes to the improvement of mental well-being. Contact with natural environments supports cognitive function by reducing fatigue and restoring attention span. Exposure to nature helps improve sleep, while decreased anxiety and negative ruminations bring improved mood and positive feelings. Spending time in nature during childhood develops imagination, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. In addition, greater proximity and accessibility to green spaces on a daily basis promotes social interaction and cohesion. In children, outdoor experiences promote enthusiasm and motivation to learn, as well as calmness, self-control and interpersonal skills. These effects contribute to the development of prosocial behaviours and an atmosphere of cooperation.
Recognition of the diversity of nature’s contributions to well-being is now manifested through the integration of these issues into public health policies and through a better consideration of nature in care structures (for example, through the development and promotion of green outdoor spaces). More specifically, we observe the development of nature-based therapies and ecotherapies concerned with the development of relationships between individuals and nature in perspectives on care, prevention and enrichment of the human-nature bond. In order to feed these fields of research and practice, it seems useful to question the mechanisms that contribute to the positive effects observed. Why exactly does being confronted with nature do us good?
…towards understanding processes of interaction with nature
A preliminary explanation may lie in evolutionary processes. The human species has developed through contact with nature, and this contact, over the course of generations, has forged our genes and neural systems. The biophilia hypothesis developed by biologist Edward Wilson postulates that human beings have an innate tendency, inscribed in their genes, to seek connections with nature and other forms of life, in order to ensure the best possible adaptation with their environment. This hypothesis is now supported by a series of neuroscience studies that demonstrate an optimisation of performance within a natural environment: different brain regions interact more when we are surrounded by nature, including the visual cortex, which appears particularly effective for analysing natural scenes.
This adaptation would partly explain the reduction of stress caused by contact with nature, while urban environments tend to hinder this recovery process. As early as 1981, Roger Ulrich had shown the presence of alpha waves, characteristic of a state of relaxation, when contemplating a natural landscape rather than an urban environment. Thus, nature solicits our neural systems gently, without overloading them. In addition, the brain easily analyses what it perceives, having adapted to this environment during its long evolution, and this fluidity seems to soothe it. The gentle, discreet and continuous fascination offered by natural landscapes promotes effortless psychic rest and diverts our attention from our ruminations.
When we are in contact with nature, certain characteristics associated with natural environments are also likely to contribute positively to human health. Exposure to a variety of natural habitats allows for the acclimatisation of the body’s microbial community as well as immune responses to allergens and other factors that can cause disease. Studies highlight the effects of certain phytoncides, chemical components produced by plants: inhalation of cedrol, for example, lowers heart rate and reduces blood pressure; A-pinene produced by conifers promotes relaxation and certain molecules promote the activity of natural killer (NK) cells in humans that track and kill cells infected by viruses. However, these first avenues are not the only explanatory horizon for addressing the complexity of the health issues associated with nature, and it is necessary to consider the social and environmental contexts in which experiments involving nature take place. The transformation of lifestyles (urbanisation, increased use of screens, etc.), combined with environmental changes induced by human activities, is changing the relationships that individuals have with nature and leading to a scarcity and impoverishment of nature experiences. If exposure to nature seems so beneficial to us, could it be because certain human needs and concerns are heightened by distance from the natural world?
The accumulation of certain conditions relating to contemporary lifestyles (repeated stresses, decrease in physical activity and daily sleep time, modification of social ties and socialisation instances, increase in concerns related to social and environmental issues, etc.) contributes in many people to an increase in stress, which stems from a disruption of the nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is overstressed, while the parasympathetic nervous system is hindered in its functioning. In this case, the favourable reaction of exposure to nature may appear first as a recovery opportunity that the subject seizes to reduce his stress.
Above all, the introduction of nature into the field of experience can produce a distancing or shake up ordinary representations and lead us to look at ourselves, others and the world through a different lens. Physical and sensory mobilisation, whether walking, breathing, observing the landscape or listening to sounds, allows individuals to refocus their attention on the presence of their body in space, provides a pathway for the mind to channel thoughts, and promotes a state of attention to the present moment. This availability allows the individual to take a step back and promotes moments of introspection. Contact with nature also makes it possible to extract oneself – momentarily – from the social gaze. If, as one urban youth put it when asked about his relationship with the natural world, “nature doesn’t judge you” , it is not so much because of the intrinsic qualities of the living world, but because of the heavy framework that society can constitute through its norms and judgments. Natural environments, by offering a diversity of contexts of interaction, enable the deployment of social relations oriented towards cooperation, negotiation or attention to others.
Finally, the presence of natural elements confronts subjects with the otherness and uniqueness of life, as well as with the perception of a world as a shared space. Far from considering addiction as a constraint, the feeling of belonging to the natural world can be reassuring, and contribute to the construction of the meaning we give to our lives. Immersed in a natural environment, the individual sometimes feels “overwhelmed by something greater than oneself”, and “in his place…” . These sensations can be accompanied by feelings of wonder at the complexity and beauty of the living world and gratitude for the benefits it provides. These aspects raise questions about health issues and their necessary perspective with the complexity of current socio-ecological issues. If contact with nature is beneficial to us, it is perhaps because we perceive, through the establishment of it, different ways of being in the world, and sense, beyond the often compartmentalised spaces of our lives, the possibility of other common narratives. By bringing us back to the intensity of the lived moment, the relationship that is established with nature allows us to reopen possibilities and the imagination, leaving the field open to the future.
Translation by James Horrox
 Ulrich, R. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420-421.
 For example, through spatial planning strategies that allow better access to green spaces on a daily basis.
 Cosquer, A. (2021a). La sylvothérapie. PUF.
 Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Harvard University Press.
 Birch, J., Rishbeth, C. et Payne, S. (2020). Nature doesn’t judge you – how urban nature supports young people’s mental health and wellbeing in a diverse UK city. Health & Place, 62.
 Cosquer, A. (2021). Le Lien naturel, Pour une reconnexion au vivant. Le Pommier.