Your Brain, Nature, and the Relaxation Response

As you celebrate the joyous arrival of spring and witness nature’s awakening all around, did you know that nature can actually be a healer? While religion and spirituality have always extolled the glory and healing potential of nature in our pursuit to heal and transform both individually and collectively, a similar message is now coming out from science, specifically, from the field of neuroscience. So how exactly does nature heal? The answer resides in our brains and relates to the concept known as the relaxation response, a mechanism that appears to be “wired” into our biology to cope with stress.

Brain Waves and the Power of Attention
Neuropsychology now believes that the human brain allows us to process two distinct types of attention. The first is a “voluntary or direct” attention that enables us to focus our thoughts and neural energy to tasks that require our direct concentration, e.g. writing this article, watching a movie, or reading a book. The other type is an “involuntary or indirect” attention that our brain does with little or no effort, e.g. watching a sunset, meditating, having a casual conversation, or dancing.

Additionally, there are corresponding brain waves associated with these two types of attention. When our brains are engaged in voluntary, direct attention requiring focused concentration, beta waves tend to be predominant. On the contrary, our brains produce alpha waves when we experience involuntary, indirect attention requiring no fixed awareness. The two other brain waves, theta and delta, are predominant during sleep with theta waves occurring in deep-sleep and delta waves during REM dream-sleep.

While having our brain in beta-wave state is important, as it helps us to focus on daily tasks, unfortunately, many of us live a typical life with our brains disproportionately in the stressful beta-wave state and barely enough time in the healing and regenerative alpha-wave state. Unlike theta and delta waves that occur predominantly in sleep, the healing and regenerative properties of alpha waves are produced only when we are conscious and awake.

In our current technologically driven world, we are on average bombarded with 4,000 bits of information/second and about 700 ads a day. The brain is overwhelmed with all this sensory data, as it requires our attention to be in “voluntary or direct” mode and our brains to reside in the constantly stressful beta-waves for the majority of our day while awake. Rarely, do we take the time in our waking state for the brain to go into the calming, soothing alpha-waves and into “involuntary and indirect” attention.

Mind-Body Connection
In the growing medical field of psycho-neuro-immunology (PNI), there appears to be a correlation between the various brain waves with our health and wellbeing. When our brains are highly amped up in focused direct attention for long hours at a time, we live our day predominantly in a beta-wave state accompanied with the release of cortisol, the stress-hormone that eventually may lead to chronic anxiety, illness and disease. The good news is that involuntary, indirect attention produces the alpha-waves that produce beta-endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, neurotransmitters that enable us to become relaxed, calm, and centered when we’re in stress throughout our day. This evolutionary mechanism wired into our neurology is known as the relaxation response. This built-in relaxation response suggests that our brains and nervous systems enable us to experience a state of calm and relaxation in moments of stress and anxiety.

Natrue as Healer
So can you guess what’s one of the easiest ways for us to enhance the alpha-waves of calm and centeredness and to stimulate our natural relaxation response? The answer, of course, is NATURE! Another emerging field of study, known as ecopsychology, advocates that even though the human brain is currently shaped for our modern and technologically-driven environment, its original function was to interact with and respond to the natural world in which it evolved over the millennia. In essence, the human brain is literally “hard-wired” to BE IN NATURE, as being in nature is natural for the brain.

According to this field of study, human beings have an instinctual biological need to connect with nature, something known as the biophilic instinct, a concept advanced by the Harvard biologist Edward Wilson. The idea is that humans and the human brain evolved over millennia as beings deeply enmeshed with and inexorably linked to the intricacies of nature. Wilson describes biophilia as the "innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes." Even though our human brain has recently adapted to an environment of technology and sensory stimulation, we each still have this affinity for nature ingrained in our genotype and in our neurobiology. This evolutionary connection to nature activates in the part of the brain known as the insula, the area that governs our internal feelings and sensations. So when we dance, do yoga meditate, focus on our breath, swim, run, or are in nature we begin to connect to the internal terrain of our body. The insula gauges how we’re feeling and what we’re experiencing within our body and mind in the present moment.

Relaxation Response
This ability to tap into the relaxation response through nature appears also to have a tremendous impact on our health and wellbeing. Scientific studies have already begun and continue to demonstrate the powerful healing aspects of nature. Dr. Ulrich published one of the earliest studies in 1984 Science, in which he noticed that patients who were recovering from surgery healed more quickly and required less pain medication when placed in hospital rooms that had views of nature, versus patients placed in rooms facing brick walls. Ulrich conjectured that this acceleration in healing was perhaps a result of the brain connecting to nature. It appears that when we are immersed in nature, our brains go automatically into the involuntary, indirect attention-mode that is connected with the healing alpha-wave brain state. Research suggests that even a short walk in the park during your lunch break, touching a tree on your walk to the office, or literally “stopping to smell the roses” once in a while is beneficial, as it is an evolutionary trait that our brains evolved to do. Furthermore, even passive contact with nature such as viewing an open pasture in your car or hearing the sound of birds chirping from your window can have the same powerful benefits as an actual immersion in nature.

When the brain’s alpha and beta waves are equally in balance throughout our waking day, we experience psycho-physiological coherence, a deep and profound state of integration of the body, mind, and brain. The longer we can produce coherence, the stronger our immune system, our health, and wellbeing. Being in nature, again, is one of the easiest and most effective ways to cultivate this balance of the brain waves and to switch into our involuntary, calm mode of attention. So it appears that science is beginning to validate that nature truly has a profound calming and soothing effect on the mind and our neurobiology. So what better time than spring to get out in nature and experience its healing power! As the poet Thoreau beautifully states, “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” 

Have a joyous and beautiful spring as you continue Living Your Light®

Dr. Jay Kumar
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