words :: Ben Osborne.
As I rattled down the trail, a blur of earth tones in my peripheral and Tupac’s “Hit Em’ Up” blasting in my earbuds, my brain felt crowded, tense and narrow. I wished I could hear something, but I wasn’t sure what. I took the earbuds out—I knew what I needed wasn’t Tupac recounting his beef with The Notorious B.I.G.
When we go into nature, most of us carry baggage we’re expecting to leave behind at the trailhead—at least partially. We’re using nature as an escape to clear our minds, get some fresh air and perhaps some exercise. Going into nature should be a full sensory immersion, including sounds—minus the clutter.
Take a deep breath and listen to what’s most important—your own thoughts.
Noise pollution has had its day in court, and the jury was not friendly. Dating as far back as the 1970s scientists have proven that living in noisier places can have a serious effect on mental health, especially in the early development of children. One antidote to noise is getting out into nature. If you live near a patch of trees, a stretch of forest, or can get out into true wilderness, you have access to a remarkable gift. Silencers to the pistol of urbanization, trees have a remarkable way of reducing clutter in your brain by giving you nothing more than the space to think. Just think about the last time you tried to yell to your buddy on the biking trail—the spruce needles likely soaked up your shouts and rendered your decibels useless. Just like your voice, trees mute the sounds of cell phones ringing, car engines starting and the general hustle and bustle of everyday life.
The quiet of the forest is undoubtedly (and unfortunately) rare in the world we live in today, but when you’re able to get into the forest, the effects can be life-saving—so long as you do it right.
The Japanese have done extensive research on the concept of “forest bathing”, or shinrin-yoku, and its healing properties. The practice stimulates all five senses, but perhaps most important is the absence of noise in the forest. When your environment is free of noise pollution, your cognitive function gets a boost.
In the late 1980s, around the same time shinrin-yoku was gaining traction as a therapy in Japan, environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan began to develop their Attention Restoration Theory. This is a complex and multi-part theory but, boiled down, it points to clinical evidence that immersion in natural environments can improve our mental focus and problem-solving skills, increase positive emotions and decrease stress. This happens in part because our minds can wander creatively in a natural setting, instead of focusing on everyday tasks.
But for many, getting out into nature is accompanied by one big distraction—their constantly buzzing cell phones. Earbud technology has come a long way in the last few years. (If you don’t think AirPods look like they’re from the future, you are likely an alien—get that checked out.) It would seem as though not popping in your earbuds for a ride would be a missed opportunity. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Next time you’re in the forest, try taking out the earbuds or leaving your phone behind. It’s the absence of the need to listen that can be so restorative. Modern technologies demand constant attention—if you haven’t responded to a text in minutes, you’ll likely get another one. Notifications constantly jump to your screen, begging you to lose your focus. Nature offers the opportunity to temporarily relinquish your duties to your phone, get away from the noise that takes up more brain space than you realize. Take a deep breath and listen to what’s most important—your own thoughts. —ML