Can a Stroll in the Park Replace the Psychiatrist’s Couch?
A new generation of psychologists and therapists focus on the relationship between nature and mental health
Standing alone atop a modest mountain in rural Maine, Eric Adams looked out into the darkness all around him. Between the silhouettes of boulders and trees, slivers of yellow light wandered and winked — the eyes of wild animals. Fears began to crowd his mind, but he did not push them away. This was part of his therapy.
To help confront a marriage in crisis, Adams (a pseudonym) sought counseling. But the 34-year-old lawyer from Syracuse, New York, didn’t opt for the psychiatrist’s couch. Instead, he chose the mountain. Adams turned to an emerging practice called ecotherapy, which applies the principles of ecopsychology — the study of how the natural world influences mental health.
“I don’t have an office — all my meetings are outside regardless of the weather,” said Dennis Grannis-Phoenix, an ecotherapist in Bangor, Maine who began counseling Adams in 2004. Hiking, camping, kayaking — each therapeutic session centered on an outdoor activity. Grannis-Phoenix asked Adams to climb the mountain alone as an exercise in learning to face his fears and anxieties. Instead of rationalizing his fears, Grannis-Phoenix wanted Adams to embrace them — something both therapist and patient feel is easier to learn in nature than in an office.
“Nature forces you to confront your immediate circumstances,” said Adams. “Ecotherapy speaks to you not just through your analytical and verbal capabilities — your body interacts with nature.” In a way, Adams said, interacting with nature is a kind of therapy for both body and mind.
He isn’t alone in thinking so. In the early 1990s, when historian Theodore Roszak criticized mainstream psychology for failing to consider the relationship between mental health and natural environments, a movement called ecopsychology emerged to address exactly that. Loyal to Roszack at first, the movement developed ideas that budded in the 1960s and framed itself as a critique of Western psychology’s focus on the experiment — but things are beginning to change. Some researchers are mounting a new campaign to bring the scientific method to ecopsychology and its applied practice, ecotherapy. These researchers have already founded the field’s first peer-reviewed journal, Ecopsychology, and they are about to publish a book outlining their mission. The book, published by MIT Press, advocates serious study of how green spaces color psychological well-being.
“We are hoping to revitalize the field of ecopsychology,” said Jolina Ruckert, a PhD candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the forthcoming book. “We want to bring in the more rigorous approach of the modern social sciences.”
Science and Skepticism
In the past few years, some ecopsychologists have made significant strides in adding scientific rigor to their field. What their research suggests so far is that even subtle interactions with nature provide a range of cognitive benefits, including elevated mood, enhanced memory, and decreased stress. Staring out a window at pretty scenery can significantly lower one’s heart rate, for example, and some studies even indicate that hospital windows with views of nature can facilitate healing. What’s more, nature provides measurably greater benefits than both manmade environments and simulations of nature. Research demonstrates that walking through the city can tax our attention, whereas a park restores our concentration and can even improve our performance on tests of memory.
These findings come from controlled studies that follow the tenets of mainstream psychology. Despite the new enthusiasm for serious empirical work, many researchers in mainstream psychology remain cautious about drawing any conclusions that ecopsychological studies cannot properly support. “My impression as an outsider is that ecopsychology is a promising but preliminary field,” said Scott O. Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University. “I wouldn’t say it’s conclusive, but there are certainly many suggestions that nature may be helpful for short-term mental health. There’s no question it can have positive effects on mood. I think claims that nature may be helpful are reasonable, but claims that our technological society or distance from nature are massively detrimental to mental health go beyond the current data.”
The fact is that empirical work is a new trend in ecopsychology, which began as a field that wasn’t interested in the experiment so much as the experience — an individual’s personal experience with a natural environment.
“In the beginning, we didn’t need to measure anything,” said Lisa Lynch, an ecopsychology pioneer who now coordinates a masters program in the field at Antioch University in Seattle, Washington. The University of Wisconsin, Oberlin College, and Lewis & Clark College also offer graduate programs in ecopsychology.
Lynch’s graduate work at Antioch is emblematic of ecopsychology’s subjective origins. Like many of her emerging colleagues, Lynch drew inspiration from Roszak’s 1992 The Voice of the Earth to examine how natural spaces — as distinct from urban or manmade environments — affect mental health. But her PhD thesis included no scientific research.
Instead, Lynch designed a creative thesis on the ecology and natural history of a river in Oregon where she grew up — a river in which her 11-year-old sister drowned.
“The ecopsychological element for me was to take my own story of loss and grief and look at its relationship to all these other stories — the salmon, the natives that lived on the river,” Lynch said. “It was 1994 and it this was one of the earliest ecotherapy projects.” She wrote a novel; she choreographed a ceremonial dance; she told her stories. But there were no controlled experiments — just experiences and anecdotes.
“My experiences are not empirical science, but for me they are extremely valid,” Lynch said. A new generation of ecopsychologists disagrees. Experience, they argue, is not enough.
“Ecopsychology just didn’t have the rigor needed to really understand the relationship between the natural world and mental health,” said the University of Washington’s Ruckert. She belongs to a new generation of ecopsychologists who are trying to establish that rigor by growing a body of empirical work.
Parks and Relaxation
According to Thomas Doherty, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon and the editor of Ecopsychology, research by these second generation ecopsychologists evidences the measurable benefits of nature for both body and mind. In green spaces, for example, people’s heart rates decrease, their muscles relax, and they become calmer. It’s the difference you feel when you leave behind a busy city street for a peaceful park.
A recent study by Ruckert’s advisor Peter Kahn confirmed these findings. First, Kahn stressed out his participants by giving them a series of math tests. Then he placed some people in front of a window overlooking a grassy lawn with trees, others in front of a large plasma television screen displaying the lawn in real time, and still others in front of a blank wall. As expected, those in front of the window experienced the quickest drop in stress levels, as measured by their decreasing heart rate. Participants also spent far more time looking out the window and at the plasma screen than at the blank wall. But the researchers found an unexpected result.
“Surprisingly, the blank wall and the plasma screen were no different in terms of stress reduction,” said Ruckert. Their study indicates that gazing at an authentic natural space reduces stress, whereas a digital replica of nature soothes only as well as a boring blank wall.
Kahn, whose study appeared in the May 2008 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology, isn’t sure why the plasma screen failed to relieve stress any better than a blank wall — but he suspects it’s because people recognize even a realistic display of nature as a substitute for the real thing.
Emory’s Lilienfeld thinks Kahn’s study is a good example of how to design empirical ecopsychological studies, but says he won’t be convinced until future studies confirm the findings. “There’s a lot of interesting and provocative work, but studies need to have proper controls and some of them are starting to, I think,” Lilienfeld said. “The plasma screen study is a good example, but it’s still only one study. I think it’s a good design, but I want to see the results replicated. I want to see there is that isn’t just a general effect of relaxation, but really is specific to nature.”
Focus Among the Flowers
In addition to helping us relax, authentic interactions with nature help maintain concentration, according to attention restoration theory. “Our energy to focus gets fatigued,” Doherty explained. “Natural spaces restore our ability to pay attention.”
In a 2008 study at the University of Michigan, Marc Berman asked some participants to memorize digits and recite them in reverse order. Then he had one group of participants walk through an arboretum, while others traveled crowded city streets. Afterwards, the subjects completed the digit task again. Those who’d strolled through the arboretum performed with higher attention and memory than those who had walked in the city. The arboretum-walkers recited an average of 1.5 digits more on their second test than on their first, compared with an average of 0.5 digits improvement for participants who had been exposed to the urban environment.
“Our study was one of the first to make it into a mainstream psychology journal,” said Berman, whose study was published in Psychological Science. “We had a lot of experimental control.” For example, Berman made sure his participants followed consistent paths through the arboretum and streets by monitoring their progress with GPS-enabled wristwatches. And he used standardized surveys to assess people’s mood before and after their walks.
“It was one of the first times that we grounded the human relationship with nature in empirical research,” said Ruckert of Berman’s study. “As ecopsychology increasingly incorporates a more systematic approach, I see it emerging more in the dialogue of mainstream psychology.”
Even Lisa Lynch — the ecopsychology pioneer who believes in the experience over the experiment — is excited by her field’s new empirical directions. “Sometimes it was a little like Peter Kahn and I were fighting with light sabers,” Lynch said. “But I think Kahn and his students are doing some excellent work looking at how can we validate these experiences through science. I think that’s an important move for the field.
Ecopsychology had no peer-reviewed journal of its own until April 2009, when Mary Anne Liebert, Inc. published the first issue of Ecopsychology. Additionally, Ruckert, Peter Kahn and Patricia Habash are the co-editors of an upcoming book with MIT Press entitled Ecopsychology: Science, Totems and the Technological Species, in which around a dozen psychologists, anthropologists and biologists discuss their work and the importance of applying rigorous scientific methods to ecopsychology.
But some ecopsychologists and ecotherapists aren’t so enthusiastic about the new empirical work. “For me the science is not a critical piece,” said Dennis Grannis-Phoenix, the Maine ecotherapist who asked Eric Adams to hike a mountain alone at night. “I’ve seen the changes Eric and my patients go through and they are real.”
Adams, on the other hand — who is now divorced, but lives in Bolivia to be near his children — welcomes science. “People who gravitate towards ecopsychology don’t tend to have that kind of a background,” Adams said. “But it’s not like the scientific perspective and the ecotherapeutic perspective are at odds with each other.”
For Adams, divorce was the right decision — one he reached through ecotherapy. “Rather than conform to my environment, I learned to change my conditions,” Adams said. “Because nature is so much a part of who I am, something about interacting with it helps me to make these big life choices.”