Nature’s New Health Benefit: the Soft Fascination of Trees

Candice Gaukel Andrews February 12, 2013 13
Fall forest

Trees provide us with a good share of our oxygen and clean the air of pollutants. When they die, we tend to perish with them. ©John T. Andrews

The emerald ash borer is a serial killer, responsible for more than one hundred million tree deaths. A beetle native to Asia, the emerald ash borer was first discovered in the United States in Michigan in the summer of 2002. Since then, it has spread to seventeen more states and Canada.

This insect’s destruction is not only depriving us of our trees, it turns out, but is also taking a toll on our own health. Trees supply a good share of our oxygen, of course, and act as natural filters, cleaning the air of pollutants. But recently it’s been discovered that when the trees in our neighborhoods die, we tend to perish more frequently, too.

It’s believed that this surprising result is due to an effect known as “soft fascination.“ 

I ♥ trees

Tree trunks

Hospital patients who saw trees outside their windows recovered faster than those who had a view of a built wall. ©John T. Andrews

Within four years of first becoming infested with emerald ash borers, ash trees die. Other than leaving once-lined neighborhood streets and parks bare, something else seems to happen — something inside us.

According to a study published just this month by the National Institutes of Health titled The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash Borer, mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illnesses increases in places infested with the emerald ash borer. The report stated that “across the fifteen states in the study area, the borer was associated with an additional 6,113 deaths related to illness of the lower respiratory system, and 15,080 cardiovascular-related deaths.” In conclusion, say the researchers, the loss of trees to the emerald ash borer “adds to the growing evidence that the natural environment provides major public health benefits.”

In fact, data released in a report by the Center for Chesapeake Communities and the Pinchot Institute for Conservation just a few years ago showed that trees in the Washington, D.C., area remove more than 8.3 million pounds of nitrogen dioxide each year, the equivalent of taking more than 274,000 cars off the road annually. And, based on studies of the costs of pollution to society, such as in health care, the district’s tree cover saves nearly $51 million annually.

While that may partially explain why trees help keep us from getting respiratory illnesses in the first place, it doesn’t account for why mortality rates from such diseases rise when trees disappear.

Soft fascination

While evidence has been building up for a few years now that a dose of nature can alleviate a number of health problems, a new line of modern thought suggests that great forests, trees, and other natural elements affect our health in more nuanced ways, as well. In a classic 1984 study involving patients recovering from gall bladder removal surgery in a Pennsylvania hospital, researcher Roger Ulrich manipulated the outside views from the convalescents’ windows so that half were able to gaze at trees while the other half saw only a brick wall. The patients who saw nature outside their windows recovered faster, requested fewer pain medications, and had slightly fewer surgical complications than those with the view of a wall.

Forest walk

Natural scenes effortlessly capture our attentions and replace negative thoughts with a positive sense of well-being. ©John T. Andrews

Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan attribute this restorative ability of nature to something they term “soft fascination,” as opposed to directed attention. Directed attention, or intentional focus, is seen as a limited resource that tends to get overused and depleted in modern, urban society. On the other hand, soft fascination replenishes our capacity for paying attention. Whether you encounter birdsong, a sunrise, a grove of trees, or a babbling brook, “soft, fascinating stimuli” effortlessly capture our attentions and lull us into a sort of hypnotic state, where negative thoughts and emotions are overtaken by a positive sense of well-being.

It’s becoming more and more apparent that our health is directly related to the health of our environment, not only in the most direct ways but in myriad, subtle and minute fashions. While this may be something new to scientists, poets and writers have had the inside scoop on this for a long time. In 1862, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay titled Walking:

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

It seems he was onto something.

Has a loss of trees ever caused you to feel diminished inside? Did an outing in nature ever seem to improve your health?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

13 Comments »

  1. Tacy Fletcher February 13, 2013 at 8:20 am - Reply

    Dear Candice, excellent thoughts once again!

  2. Linda Plate February 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    It seems that “Trees are the answer.”

  3. Monte Wright February 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    Me too-only I have a different take. It doesn’t disagree at all-it comes from another direction. I’ve always seen any encumbrance of modern comfort as contributing to a gradual or momentary nullification of our inborn sense of connectedness with the natural world. Mark Twain called them modern inconveniences. Again, me too. Observations on this site come inside out for me, as if our true state is this self-created modern world and nature is some alternate visiting place. Sure, we’re on a crazy roller coaster but its not Our natural condition. We too easily forget we are creatures and not some disconnected higher being so much more important than all others. So we stir the pot of what lives where in a very unnatural way. The planet we ride on, as an organism all its own, has dispersed and dispensed of species this way a million times more than we have and will long after we’re gone. It will no doubt be the very mechanism which wipes us all off itself. survival of the fittest is the best proving ground for the advancement of species and the reason we are as advanced as we are. Living with this idea is less fun than the other way around. Trying to reconnect is sad. Maybe just as sad as forgetting this connectedness over and over again in the course of a busy modern life. It is different. If we as the really advanced creatures we are, with all this self-realization and awareness believe on a whole that we won’t survive ourselves, as sci-fi likes to point out, we should all just crawl back into the cave and let the next advanced creature have its shot. Nature may breath a sigh of relief. Maybe Thoreau too.

  4. Margaret Shorter February 13, 2013 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    Interesting, a good read. The same thing happened in BC forests with the mountain bark beetle.

  5. Stephen Savage February 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    Yes I agree, very fascinating reading too. I think that this soft restorative affect is what helps to balance the negative effects on our bodies from our modern living, electrical equipment, and chemicals in foods that all stress our bodies.

    This is why parks are so important in urban areas and the work I do in school grounds includes the well-being benefits from greening the grounds and promote outside learning to include reading, painting, improvisation etc as well as the obvious science studies (and the benefits for wildlife).

    Many modern house designs now include an extension of the living space into the garden which I believe has come about for the same reason (especially as more people have become separated from nature in natural places). This I guess is a natural progression from bringing the outside into our homes, house plants, cut flowers, landscape paintings, photographs of wildlife, statues etc. I think these are all part of our instinctive subconscious need for the benefits, contact and healing power of nature and direct contact with nature. The therapeutic benefits of gardening have been well documented and even the affects of have a dog or cat to pet (stroke). Christmas trees and the gaudy decorations we put up originally came about from a need to brighten homes during the long, cold dark winters.

    Natural remedies have now come to be much more accepted and the natural benefits of nature itself needs to promoted to a wider audience. I think many people enjoy the health benefits of nature (such as a local park) and don’t actually realize it. Natural places are shrinking and green spaces in urban areas are constantly under threat from building developments. A greater awareness of the beneficial affects of nature and potential loss of these benefits should be considered in planning applications (in the same way as currently the presence of a rare plant or animal would be considered).

    I would be very interested to hear of any other links, work or publications that explore this issue.

  6. Catrina Walker February 17, 2013 at 9:36 pm - Reply

    Candice, I really enjoyed reading this article. The ‘soft focus,’ among other qualities are aspects of our senses that we as a culture have fallen out of touch with–and which I also am quite drawn to cultivate in the world. It was nice to hear about Rachel and her husband’s work in the world in a somewhat different light, too. Thanks so much for encouraging people to re-awaken dormant senses and explore the world with relish and wonder!

  7. Deane Johnson February 19, 2013 at 9:36 am - Reply

    There is recent evidence that deforestation due to the emerald ash borer has an adverse effect on health, with impacted areas showing increased mortality due to heart and lung disease.

  8. Rachel Kowalczyk February 19, 2013 at 9:37 am - Reply

    “…soft fascination replenishes our capacity for paying attention”. Yes, Thoreau knows. Great share, Candice.

  9. Jose Gonzalez February 19, 2013 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    My advisors and professors at UofM did a lot of this work: Stephen & Rachel Kaplan, and Ray DeYoung. Check their stuff out, especially on attention restoration.

  10. Sue Olsson February 25, 2013 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    Stephen – here’s a literature review, 10 years old now, but is an interesting read on the importance of connecting people with nature and parks. http://bit.ly/WeHGV1

  11. Animals & Plants Heritage March 4, 2013 at 6:21 am - Reply

    Enough may never be said about Trees and Plants in general. Their lives remain a mystery to humans, yet, their wisdom survives well over one hundred million years. It is very interesting how very difficult it is for humans to connect with Trees and Plants, because their language is so,delicate, subtle and loving

  12. Asesh Lahiri January 11, 2014 at 8:04 am - Reply

    Interesting and informative article.There is need for green infrastructure policy and planning of cities keeping in view future growth of population to avoid destruction of green which is carried out for widening road or construction of new road and building for healthy,disease free living.

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