Finding Quiet Can Be Elusive, Even in Nature

By Mark A. Ellison, Ed.D.

Perhaps you noticed that we live in a noisy world. Maybe it is the constant hum of traffic, or the construction near your office, or the neighbors that are constantly using lawn equipment. It is difficult to escape. Over half the world’s population now lives in urban settings, making it extremely difficult to find quiet if you live in these settings. Even in rural areas, finding places free of human created noise is not easy.

nature pic

The National Park Service recently created a map that indicates that many people live in areas where night skies and soundscapes are very degraded. The blue areas of the map below indicate places where noise is less prevalent. Unfortunately, most of the eastern United States is brightly colored indicating significant noise and light pollution. The park service also found that even in more natural backcountry settings noise is prevalent due to hikers, maintenance equipment and other sources. Excessive noise is harmful not only to human health, but to wildlife as well. Certain species of animals avoid noisy places. America_Quiet

Fortunately there are places such as the “One Square Inch” project in Olympic National Park that are treated as sanctuaries for silence, to experience the quiet of nature, and used to help build awareness of the need for more areas like it.

A number of research studies have linked excessive noise with increased levels of violence and crime. Humans need to experience some levels of quiet and solitude to remain healthy. Nature provides a primary escape for this. However, if the dwindling areas of nature are not protected, there will no more places offering this type of escape.

Many of us struggle to hear our “inner voice”, to live a balanced life, and to take time to reflect. The Cherokee have a term for living life in balance, duyuktv. Take time to find a quiet natural area nearby and soak in some of the restorative power of nature, to find a sense of balance, of duyuktv. Once you have captured that restoration, share it with others. Then, work together to help protect the natural areas where you live and explore.

Spending Time in Nature is Central to the Merging Fields of Leadership and Neuroscience

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) recently identified the merging fields of leadership and neuroscience as the number one “big idea” in leadership development. Mariann Ruderman, senior fellow and research director states, “the connection between stress and brain function is one area of neuroscience that will change the landscape of leadership development.” Ruderman identifies the most immediate application of neuroscience is related to the idea of self-regulation. “If you can have greater control of your nervous system, you can control your responses. This can help in all sorts of leadership activities and is especially valuable in delicate or difficult situations.” CCL’s work in this area also includes collaborating with experts in positive psychology, mindfulness and meditation to learn more about how these practices impact the brain, and consequently leadership.

This aligns with the concept of “ECO-Human Resource Development (HRD)” that I presented at the recent Academy of Human Resource Development International Research Conference of the Americas in Denver, Colorado. ECO-HRD outlines how organizations can utilize the restorative benefits of nature for improved employee performance and health. Scientific research has shown that spending time in nature optimizes brain functioning in a number of ways including recovery of directed attention capacities as outlined by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory. When directed attention is fatigued, the ability to control or regulate responses is inhibited. However, spending time in nature heals this.  Spending time in nature also improves the ability to focus and problem solve; enhances creativity and the ability to develop novel ideas; and reduces stress. The escape nature provides from the stress and fatigue experienced at work creates an oasis for reflecting on decisions and actions, as well as the refinement of concepts.  The “cognitive quiet” that is so elusive in the modern world is easily obtainable in nature, facilitating a meditative state of mind.

Restorative nature experiences such as taking a hike, visiting a botanical garden, or finding a quiet place in the woods to sit and enjoy sights and sounds, improves cognitive health and reduces stress. Opportunities for micro-restorative experiences near the workplace include having greenways, nature areas, or even a quiet room with plants and other natural elements, that provide an escape. All of these examples can provide immediate health and performance benefits. Research has shown that as little as 30 minutes in nature can have a positive psychological impact.

Organizations that incorporate “ECO-Human Resource Development” initiatives encouraging employees to spend time in nature will reap a number of benefits, including employees with enhanced cognitive vitality, which will subsequently enable them to more fully utilize their leadership abilities.

Attention Restoration Offers Many Health Benefits

The attention restoration benefits of spending time in nature have been documented in a number of studies (Berto, 2005; Berman et al., 2008; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). William James (1892) described two types of attention: voluntary and involuntary. Attention that demands effort, or is forced because it lacks interest is called voluntary or directed. Voluntary attention is what is used when we are at work and constantly have interruptions, phone calls, and noise demanding attention. Involuntary attention is passive, reflexive and requires no effort or will when in an attentive state (Kaplan, 1978). Spending time in nature allows involuntary attention to be used. Utilizing involuntary attention rests voluntary (directed ) attention, helping  it to heal from the fatigue caused by constant demands on attention experienced in urban and work environments.

An article published in 2010 by Kaplan & Berman looks at how directed attention is a common resource for executive functioning and self regulation. The authors recognize the need for additional research on the health benefits of attention restoration.  Read the article at http://cartalk.com/ddc/wp-content/uploads/Perspectives-on-Psychological-Science-2010-Kaplan-43-57.pdf

This article is another indication that there are possible benefits from spending time in nature that impact many aspects of functioning and performance. Indeed, additional research is needed to learn more about how nature benefits human health.

Berman, M, Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008) The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.

Berto, R. (2005). Exposure to restorative environments helps restore attention capacity. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 249-259.

James, W. (1892). Psychology: The briefer course. New York: Holt.

Kaplan, S. (1978). Attention and fascination: The search for cognitive clarity. Humanscape: environments for people.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.