The ability to focus attention on nature is vital for sustainability and human health and well-being.
“Reconnect with nature” is becoming a popular catchphrase. Ecotourism and wilderness retreats regularly offer jaded city dwellers the promise of an escape from the urban jungle. However, reconnecting implies something more than just a getaway. It suggests that we once had a deeper connection with nature that we can rediscover and when we do, we will be better for it.
There is growing evidence that regular contact with nature offers health benefits such as improved memory, concentration, sensory awareness, creativity, mood and social bonding. But researchers in the field of conservation psychology are now finding that human connections with nature can benefit the environment as well. A consciousness attuned to nature is thought to lead to increased stewardship of the environment. Awareness allows us to experience something deeply, which in turn cultivates emotional bonds that foster concern. Attention creates connection. Connection fosters care.
How have we disconnected from nature? In one sense, we can never fully disconnect, since we remain physically dependent on nature for food production, crop pollination, water purification, climate regulation and its many other ‘free’ services. But this is largely an indirect and passive connection, and most people are unaware of the contributions of nature to their lives. This awareness is likely to continue to lower with each generation to the point that we may one day be unable to comprehend why a relationship with nature is important at all.
From the times of early civilisation, humans have been physically moving away from wilder nature; since the rise of the earliest forms of agriculture, through industrialisation, steady migration out of rural areas and growing separation from food sources, and the more recent scale and speed of urbanisation, globalised consumerism, instant gratification and technology-dependent lifestyles. Partly fuelled by this physical separation, these trends have also damaged our psychological connection with nature. Together, these trends form a ‘blind spot’ in our consciousness since nature consistently falls outside of our everyday awareness.
Consciousness is shaped by our experiences.
To avoid becoming overwhelmed, consciousness has a mechanism that allows us to wilfully direct our attention toward things which are of interest to us and to shut off or ‘edit out’ those things we consider unimportant to our immediate survival.
The general lack of awareness about our dependence of nature is exacerbated by the attention-grabbing technological ‘super-stimuli’ of modern society. This fuels our inattention nature blindness and our disconnection. Inattention nature blindness could explain the continued environmental degradation by humans, since we no longer notice ecological change. Many well-meaning conservationists berate modern civilisation for destroying ecosystems and point out the negative social and economic consequences. Ironically, this often results in people ‘switching-off’ their attention. Research instead finds that focusing on ‘love’ rather than only ‘loss’ of nature is a more powerful and enduring motivation.
Conservation psychologists are therefore joining the call to reconnect with nature, not just through knowledge about nature (thinking) and experience in nature (doing), but through mindfully bringing nature into consciousness (being). This means having a sustained awareness of the interrelatedness between one’s self with the rest of nature. This supports pro-social and pro-environmental behaviour.
“Attention creates connection.
Connection fosters care.”
Research is still on-going to identify which activities best support nature connection in various contexts. While there is no blueprint, it is evident from emerging research that nature connection requires a combination of cognitive, emotional and experiential approaches. But people are encouraged to personally experiment with their own techniques. One effective exercise is to just sit quietly with an open mind in any (semi-) natural area and focus attention with all your senses awakened and alert. Nature connection is often best achieved through unstructured creative or playful activity, free from time constraint. Such activities aim to focus attention in a way that displaces artificial stimuli and is instead sustained by natural phenomena: that is, a shift from nature blindness to nature awareness.
Reconnecting to nature is more than only a physical escape to recharge your batteries. True connection with nature is an everyday awareness that holds the key to finding a more harmonious relationship with life on earth. It seems that feeling part of something greater than oneself motivates care and responsible action, as well as helping us lead happier and more fulfilling lives.