Green minds think alike

Friday 6th October 2017

Jules Pretty, above the River Stour - the Essex/Suffolk border - in Nayland.

This week The Wildlife Trusts published a report, based on research carried out by the University of Essex, that emphasises the positive effects of volunteering in nature on people’s mental health. Jules Pretty, Vice-president of Essex Wildlife Trust, is Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex and was involved in the research project. This summer, Jules kindly wrote a broader article in 'Essex Wildlife', the magazine for members of Essex Wildlife Trust, about the vital health services that nature provides. Here is the fascinating article for all to read:

At the University of Essex we have worked for 15 years on how natural environments produce mental and physical health benefits for us all. We have called this green exercise. It works for all people, young and old, rich and poor, all cultural groups, in all green environments, whether urban park or nature reserve, whether wild or farmed, small or large. We have shown that a five-minute dose of nature brings immediate well-being: just go outside. All activities work too, and most people receive an additional benefit from social engagement – doing things together.

There is something very ancient going on here: we humans evolved in natural environments, learned to cooperate, shaped the land for food and resource. Now we can measure how good this nature and social engagement is for us.

In just the last two generations, world GDP per person has tripled; in the affluent countries it has quadrupled. Each of us, on average, has more. This planet now produces 35% more food per person; worldwide infant mortality has fallen from 150 to 50 per 1000 live births, in affluent countries down to 5 per 1000. Yet it is not all good. We consume more, and provoke climate change. We have more stuff; yet we are not happier. We have solved many infectious diseases, yet stumbled into an era of health problems caused by our behaviours. The way we live today is killing people in affluent countries, through cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, mental ill-health, dementias and loneliness. The costs to the UK are now eye-watering: about £150 billion every year for treatment by the NHS.

We know the primary causes, yet have been unable to create national and local environments and economies that will lead to better health. Too many calories consumed, too little daily physical activity, irregular social and cognitive engagement, too few engagements with natural places.

Our behaviours are shaped by urban and rural design and planning, by transport systems, by advertising and corporate self-interest, by access to green space and cultural norms. We know that residents of London walk 292 miles per year; but people in rural Essex walk just 122 miles on average. Obesity afflicts 35% of adults in the United States; in New York’s Manhattan, where there are pavements and public transport, people walk more: only 15% are obese. In the Japanese longevity hotspots of Nagano and Okinawa there are record numbers of happy centenarians, their cultures encouraging healthy foods, regular physical activity outdoors in nature, social connections and continued cognitive engagement.

We have recently developed the new idea of Green Minds: we can have both a sustainable planet and contented people. We know this: environments shape bodies, brains and minds; minds in turn drive body behaviours that shape the external environment. The Green Mind centres on a simple idea that the brain comprises two parts: one red, one blue. The red brain is ancient, and centres on the bottom brain-stem: it is fast-acting, involuntary and driver of fight-and-flight behaviours. The blue brain is more recent: it is slower, voluntary, the centre for learning, and driver of rest-and-digest. The bottom brain reacts before you think. The top brain is calming. A mix of blue and red is best for health and happiness.

In modern affluent economies dominated now by material consumption, the red mode is over-active. Modern life is lived on simmer, ramping up heart and lung activity, raising blood pressure, switching off the immune system and unnecessary memory formation. Too much red impacts badly on gastrointestinal (more ulcers and inflammatory bowel syndrome), immune (lower wound healing, more colds), cardiovascular (hardened arteries) and endocrine systems (more type 2 diabetes). Going red feels bad because it is bad.

But we know this too: there are many methods to quiet an over-active red brain, all with one principle in common. Immersion and attentiveness improve well-being. Activities that are immersive and involve focused attention reduce oxygen consumption, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and increase releases of serotonin and dopamine: we feel better. Three types of engagement increase regular attentiveness and immersion: nature engagement; social engagement; craft engagement.

And this is where Essex Wildlife Trust and all its members have a role to play. When you walk in nature, watch a sunset, take children pond-dipping, bake a cake, complete a crossword, something else is happening. You are not engaged in material consumption. You are making memories, learning skills, sharing and giving to others. Inside, you are calming the red brain, and improving health outcomes. The future of the planet relies on this substitution of non-material consumption, making more of activities with a light footprint and co-delivery of well-being.

Now could be the time for a new ethic: the economy is of course the environment. Nature will survive us all. Meanwhile, the idea of green minds is a route to improving our well-being as well as protecting biodiversity and nature. 


How to build a green mind

  • Nature activities that improve health include walking, gardening and allotmenteering, fishing, rock climbing, bike/horse riding, outdoor tai chi/yoga, beach holidays, outdoor swimming, watching sunsets or waves, dog walking, pigeon-racing, pilgrimage walking, bird watching, park running.
  • Social engagement activities low in material consumption yet delivering health benefits include drama and song groups, coffee mornings and carol singing, conservation volunteering, book groups and bell-ringing, fairs and fetes, parades and carnivals, horticulture societies, folklore ceremonies (mud racing, cheese rolling, Halloween, bonfire night, beating the bounds, apple day, rush bearing).
  • Craft activities that deliver immersive-attention include painting, drawing, writing, calligraphy, baking, jam-making, carpentry, home improvements, knitting and quilting, crosswords, mindfulness and meditation, tai chi/yoga, jewellery making, boat-building, craft beer brewing and wine-making, dry-stone walling and hedge-laying.