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.

Advertisements

Shinrin Yoku

Shinrin Yoku is the Japanese practice of “forest bathing”, or hiking in forests, to help get in touch with nature, improve  mental and physical health, and lower stress levels. This practice was introduced by the Forest Agency of the Japanese government in 1982, and in 2005 the agency introduced a “Therapeutic Effects of Forests Plan”. Research in Japan on the therapeutic effects of shinrin yoku have found that spending time in forests is an intense form of aromatherapy. One benefit of spending time in a forest is exposure to phytoncides, or substances that are produced by plants. The presence of phytoncides, and

Rocky Mountains National Park, Colorado, (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Rocky Mountains National Park, Colorado, (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

other similar plant produced chemicals, helps to lower stress levels. Subsequently, increased levels of natural killer cells (NK), and NK cells activity were observed. NK cells help the immune system fight off viruses and other pathogens, and kill tumors and other virus infected cells, including cancer.

Research is beginning to reveal the health benefits that nature offers. Additional empirical research on the psychological and physiological benefits of spending time in nature is needed. With this evidence, health care providers can begin to offer “nature prescriptions” for regaining or maintaining health, and organizations can begin to fully embrace the use of nature for improved employee health and enhanced workplace performance.

Li, Q. (2010). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune system. Environmental Health Preventive Medicine(15), 9-17.

Soft Fascination Allows The Mind To Wander in a Noisy, Urban World

By Dr. Mark A. Ellison

Many people now experience physical and psychological health issues related to the stress, fatigue and pollution associated with living and working in urban environments. In a previous post I explored the concept of escaping these environments to spend time in more restorative natural environments. A key component of natural environments that encourages restoration is the presence of fascinating stimuli (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Something that is fascinating is a stimulus that initiates the use of involuntary attention, or attention that requires no effort.  The presence of fascinating components of the environment are important because they attract us, and keep us from becoming bored, while allowing functioning without the use of directed, or voluntary attention. Fascinating components of a natural environment include bird songs; the sound of wind blowing through the trees; clouds; a sunrise or sunset; or a flowing stream or river.

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

These elements are not random, but are all connected to the natural environment, thus supporting one another, and capturing attention. Fascination experienced in nature is referred to as soft fascination (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). This is in contrast to hard fascination (e.g. sporting events, watching TV, etc) that demand full attention, not allowing for other thinking, including reflection. Environments that encourage soft fascination have

involuntary attention aspects that are of a mild strength while also having an aesthetic component. “Soft fascination may be a mixture of fascination and pleasure such that any lack of clarity an individual may be experiencing is not necessarily blotted out by distraction, but rendered substantially less painful” (Kaplan & Kaplan, p. 192). This allows the individuals to experience fascinating environment while also allowing for the exploration of other thoughts, as well as reflection. This allows the mind to wander, and presents opportunities to make mental connections to what previously had been disconnected ideas or material. Experiencing environments that

Fire pink (Silene virginica) wildflower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Fire pink (Silene virginica) wildflower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

encourage soft fascination while hiking provides opportunities to think through situations and make decisions; to reflect on prior experiences and make sense of them; and to develop ideas that can be implemented in the workplace or in personal life. Making time to let your mind wander is time well invested.

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