Being constantly surrounded with so much technology and civilization it becomes hard to imagine what it was like for people hundreds or thousands of years ago. For them, life was particularly challenging since they did not have access to food or transportation. Things we take for granted such as obtaining water to drink or take a bath were not so trivial to our ancestors who had to survive in the forest or jungle. It’s easy to look back at them and think we are better off in every regard.
However, so much scientific progress and drastic changes to our lifestyles in such a short time does come with some negatives. The truth is, we did not evolve to function in our present-day environments. Our current urban surroundings, plus all the visual and auditory stimulations we are bombarded with are simply unnatural to us as human beings. Today we live in an artificial jungle of concrete. The colors, smells and sounds that we evolved with have been replaced entirely.
This unnatural lifestyle can have negative effects on our psychology even if we have grown accustomed to it. Reality did not select us biologically through tens of thousands of years into our present human state surrounded by nature to be able to simply unplug from it without suffering consequences. It is no surprise that city dwellers have a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living in rural areas, according to several studies.
One study by Japanese researchers from Kyoto University shows that people experience reductions in stress and depression when switching from an urban to a forest environment. According to the researchers, “forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes.” Another study from the UK showed that simply living in an urban area with more trees improved the mental state of the test subjects.
While it is not entirely understood how plants and trees influence the brain and the underlying mechanisms which are involved, one theory is that scents and smells play a key role. It is known that smells are closely tied to the emotional center in our brain. Millions of years ago when we were still primitive beings, we used smells to guide ourselves through nature. Thus the neurological mechanisms which process smells are deeply rooted in our brains and affect more than just the ability to smell itself. This is why certain scents can instantly bring up distant memories and activate feelings of nostalgia or other strong emotions. This instinctive connection with our natural environment is more than just visual and it is millions of years old.
Taking into account this ancient connection to Mother Nature that we are born with as animals, we should stop and consider our surroundings if seeking to improve our state of mind. A simple occasional walk through green spaces may provide the mental healing that many people seek by consuming expensive artificial medications. These artificial chemicals simply drive us further from the natural state we were born to live in. Needless to mention, walking and the physical exercise involved in exploring non urban areas is itself another key evolutionary element that many of us are lacking in our day-to-day lives. The sedentary aspect of the urban lifestyle is perhaps the most insidiously damaging one, leading our bodies towards an unnatural state of weakness and decay. While many people try to compensate for this with gym memberships, it is only a partial solution to the fundamental issue, which is our detachment from our original habitat.
Feeling blue? Getting to a local park, nature conservancy or your nearest hiking trail to surround yourself with green is a great way to connect yourself to nature and unplug from modern technology and conveniences. In addition to getting your blood flowing and muscles moving, you’ll experience that subconscious yet powerful connection to Mother Nature. It’s a great way to fight off urban blues and recharge your batteries!