Alright let's start with two confronting (but not altogether surprising) pieces of information:
1. People born and raised in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia than people born and raised in rural environments. Yep, TWICE as likely.
2. “Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost?” Yep, it does exist, and it's called nature.
We're just animals after all, right? Evolution is something I always trip out on; we are anatomically the same species that we were 100000 years ago, but just in the last 200 we have completely redesigned the physical habitat in which we live. Imagine taking a wolf from the wild and putting it on the top floor of a building, it would go fucking mental!!! We have mitigated our situation with trees and green spaces, but the environment we live in is still completely foreign to what we were designed for; our habitat is still radically different to that in which nature intended us to live.
Even more severely contrasted is what technology and the internet have done to our mental processes. Our hundred thousand year old brains are now in a constant state of virtual shock, simply not designed for the inundation of stimulus currently facilitated by social media. Combine these two things and it is no surprise that humans face serious challenges in maintaining physical and mental homeostasis in the modern era.
I just finished reading an incredible NatGeo article on the mental health benefits to gained from nature. The concept that you’ll feel better in the wild isn't new: hippies and monks have been purporting this forever. But as science is improving and studies become more lateral, the therapeutic effects are becoming increasingly quantifiable.
And think about it - do you know anyone who doesn't agree that wilderness is indescribably (perhaps inexplicably) yet undeniably “good” for them?
I literally don't think I've ever met anyone who says “nah I don't like getting out into nature”. I've definitely got friends who are sooks and don't like the physical challenges often associated with outdoor activities; hiking is challenging, tents are less comfortable than bedrooms, bla bla bla it makes sense. But even these people feel it when you get them out there. The cathartic effect of wilderness is a universally common experience.
But right there I've introduced challenge #1: wilderness. We all live in cities now! Wilderness isn't necessarily accessible for everyone. But how's this from a study in Toronto in 2015, who compared survey responses with local geography. Turns out just a few trees on your block makes an immense difference to your mental and physical health. Living in suburbs with an abundance of roadside trees had an impact on people's heart and metabolic health equivalent to what could be gained from a $20000 rise in income! How wild is that!!! Just the amount of trees on the footpath could provide the same cognitive benefits as a five figure investment in medical alternatives.
MRI results are pouring in from all over the world comparing the mental clarity of people immersed in an urban environment and people immersed in wilderness. Those subjects in nature consistently and definitively demonstrate reduced activity in both the subgenual prefrontal cortex (depressive rumination) and the amygdala (fear and anxiety), and increased activity in areas of the brain like the anterior cingulate and the insula (empathy and altruism). Urban environments facilitated literally none of these cognitive improvements.
For me personally, nature is literally like fuel for my brain. But I live in a city! As such, I've had to intentionally engineer it into my everyday lifestyle - I don't just surf because its fun, I surf because it's a chance to interact with the ocean in a raw and undiluted way. When the surf is flat I run trails in a national park close to home, and obviously I have built my vehicle to facilitate an immediate retreat to the bush at any opportunity for an overnight stay.
The overwhelming evidence (both empirical and measurable) makes it crazy to me that wilderness isn't prescribed as a mainstream treatment for mental health imbalances. Imagine being able to avoid a gnarly and potentially long-term course of pharmaceutical antidepressants, just by regularly going bush! This sort of science reckons that isn't as far fetched as it might sound.
Nature absolutely influences how we allocate our attention and whether or not we focus on negative emotions. Link to the NatGeo article is here - seriously worth a read!