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Even tethered to our desks, biology keeps us connected to nature

How exposure to greenery helps us create, focus, heal, and unwind.

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If you’re trying to get out of the office on a Friday fast enough to sit on your back porch, you’re not alone. The colors, patterns, and textures of the natural world are deeply and universally appreciated. Throughout history, we’ve placed a spiritual reverence upon that world. This connection prompted biologist E.O. Wilson to define “biophilia” as an innate, biological love for nature that all human beings share.

But a pervasive problem of working Americans, particularly those living in urban areas, is a lack of nature in everyday life. Only one in five employees in North America takes a lunch break away from their desks. It may be one of the reasons why we’re so stressed in the workplace. Our bodies and our minds suffer without breaks and time spent in the great outdoors. Here’s why nature is proven to improve our well-being — and what companies are doing to bring the outdoors indoors.

Exposure to greenery, and even just the color green, helps the brain perform.

Green spaces, like parks, really have been proven to give our bodies and minds a gentle boost. Research shows that green spaces enhance cognitive development in schoolchildren, produce milder symptoms for kids living with ADHD, and improve both health perception and cardio-metabolic conditions.

And the color green — outside of a natural setting — can make a difference. A 2012 study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin finds that a quick glance at the color actually improves creative performance. Our brains automatically associate green with the feeling of crisp, fresh, relaxing nature, and absorb all the goodness that it provides.

Accessibility to bodies of water eases us into a mode of rest and relaxation.

Just as greenery affects us in only the best ways, research has also investigated how exposure to water — its sight, sound, and smell — impacts us. Green environments that include a body of water create an even greater improvement to self-esteem and mood. And the University of Exeter finds that proximity to a coast is positively correlated with reports of good health.

The sound of water — the currents, waves, and splashes — gives us a sense of peace. It’s called non-rhythmic sensory stimuli, or the random and ephemeral movements that we connect with nature. Dr. Orfeu Buxton, an associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, says, “These slow, whooshing noises are the sounds of non-threats, which is why they work to calm people. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.’” It’s why so many of us use noise machines that include ocean sounds to help us fall asleep.

We know that nature can reduce stress, but so can virtual nature.

Using technology to help us connect to nature in our digital lives has resulted in the phenomenon of “technobiophilia,” or the attraction to nature as it appears in technology. Not only do we love being in nature, but we also crave it in the online world.

Researcher Sue Thomas has found that looking at nature photos on computer screensavers, liking our friends’ scenic landscape shots on Facebook, and even visiting a park in the online virtual world Second Life can give us energy and increase our attention span. A 2010 study in the Journal of CyberTherapy & Rehabilitation confirms this. Participants exposed to a stressful encounter were given one of three virtual reality environments to explore — a nature setting, an urban environment, and a neutral space filled with geometric shapes. Those in the nature VR world developed significantly lower stress levels.

And now, doctors are using VR to help their patients heal. Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles found that patients using VR — to either watch footage panning over Icelandic scenery or pretend they’re swimming with whales — have reported a 24 percent drop in pain.

Now, architects are bringing all that research into the benefits of nature into our day-to-day spaces.

Biophilic design expands upon Dr. Wilson’s concept of biophilia, and it focuses on bringing elements of nature indoors. Today, different companies around the country like Clif Bar have begun introducing this architectural philosophy into their office environments. It points us back to the simplicity of design throughout history, using local and natural materials to connect us with Mother Earth. At Clif Bar’s bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho, employees are exposed to giant windows of natural light, flourishing plant life, salvaged lumber, and stone from a local quarry.

As researchers Stephen Kellert and Judith Heerwagen noted in their book on biophilic design, “It is about humanity’s place in nature, and the natural world’s place in human society, a space where mutuality, respect, and enriching relation can and should exist.”