A walk in the woods.
The dappled sunshine on your face. The birds twittering and the leaves rustling in the breeze. Deep breaths of fresh, cool air and the crunch of twigs and old leaves under your feet.
Ahh. Can you feel yourself calm down, even just 1% when you imagine that?
That’s something we all experience. A shared part of the human condition that’s been called ‘biophilia‘. Meaning ‘love of life’, it describes our deep emotional resonance with other lifeforms and nature as a whole.
It’s something most of us are aware of in our own lives and has been described by philosophers dating back to Aristotle. The Romantics of the 19th century such as Henry Thoreau and William Wordsworth so beautifully described it at a time in our history when industrialisation was disconnecting more and more people from nature:
“There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.”
Henry David Thoreau
And since then just think about how much more urbanisation has taken place. In fact it was in 2008 that, for the first time, more people on the planet lived in cities than didn’t.
We evolved to be soothed by nature
Like the Romantics, I like to believe there’s something spiritual at play with our experience of beauty and with nature. But if you’re more scientific in your leanings, there’s also recent biology-based theories for why connecting with nature helps us feel better.
Our need to connect to nature makes a lot of sense when you think of our evolution, as Clemens Arvay writes in The Biophilia Effect (2015) :
“Homo sapiens didn’t evolve over millions of years among cement blocks and densely built-up cities, but in natural habitats dominated by plants and animals, rivers, mountains, lakes, hills and meadows…Our evolutionary home is nature.”
The benefits of connecting with nature
The Nature Fix by Florence Williams (2017), is a study of the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. She writes:
“We’re losing our connection to nature more dramatically than ever before. Thanks to a confluence of demographics and technology, we’ve pivoted further away from nature than any generation before us. At the same time we’re increasingly burdened by chronic ailments made worse by time spent indoors, from myopia and vitamin D deficiency to obesity, depression, loneliness and anxiety among others.”
Williams cites a tonne of studies that prove what most of us know to be true: that when we connect to nature, it:
- Soothes & de-stresses us (activating our parasympathetic nervous system)
- Helps our ability to focus and direct our attention (see this post on that)
- Can induce feelings of awe and inspiration
As Williams’ book makes clear, being out in nature is crucial for good physical and mental health. But she also explains that we often under-estimate the benefits this will have on us: hence we don’t make time to do it enough.
Can making nature-related-art do this for us too?
I didn’t need persuading about how beneficial it is to connect to nature. I’ve written before about the role gardening and walking play in achieving a level of balance in my own life (both of which have been in short supply since I’ve had my children which I find hard to handle).
But what I’ve also experienced is that doing the kind of deep, meditative looking I do when I am painting my nature-themed subjects also brings me enormous well-being benefits.
Some of that comes from being in the flow state, and from the effects of colour, but I’ve noticed that whenever I’ve painted non-nature subjects, the benefits overall are less. I’ve put that down to my own personal preferences for subject matter, and of course that probably plays a part. But I’ve recently come across research that shows that viewing nature imagery can also bring about the soothing effects of being in nature.
A 2013 study and a 2015 study showed that just looking at still images of nature is enough ‘natural’ stimulus to lower our stress levels in a way that looking at images of the built environment is not.
The 2013 study by Brown, Barton and Gladwell found that people who viewed an image of nature before experiencing a stressful event recovered from the stress more quickly than people who were shown ‘built’ environments. In the group who were shown nature scenes, their parasympathetic nervous system returned to a natural state more quickly.
The 2015 study by Van den Berg, Maas et al. found that five minutes of viewing an urban green space can support recovery from stress. These findings show that even just looking at green space can provide ‘micro-restorative opportunities’, i.e. when we connect to nature, it helps us to restore ourselves from stress.
And those studies weren’t covering the kind of deep looking we do when we paint something from life or a photo. So I’m willing to bet that the benefits would be shown to be magnified if that were studied.
This is good news for times when getting out to connect to nature first-hand is hard.
- When you’re under lock-down in the middle of a global pandemic (hello!)
- When you’re recovering from illness
- When you just don’t fancy getting out because it’s cold, grey and rainy (otherwise known as ‘January’ here in the UK!)
But ideally creating nature-inspired art can be done in addition to getting out in nature, for a double dose of nature and the associated benefits. These benefits include boosting your immune system, making it the perfect pandemic activity.
In fact, I recommend that if you have a nature-inspired art session, that you connect to nature more deeply by listening to nature sounds at the same time for a triple dose of nature! Again, research is also proving that nature sounds (especially bird song and water sounds) are soothing to us as well. I have used the Noisli app for these but there are loads of others.
What are your own experiences of being in nature and of painting nature subjects?
Are the two in any way linked for you?
Do you find that painting nature subjects helps you to connect to nature, and does this enhance your feeling of connection to our world?
And does painting nature bring you any other benefits?
I’d love to hear about your experiences so please do leave a comment below.