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

Utilizing the Restorative Benefits of Nature for Self Reflection

Socrates exhorted us on the virtues of self reflection declaring “that the unexamined life is not worth living.” Unfortunately, the continuing cascade of noise, distractions and information experienced on a daily basis has eliminated many of the opportunities for self examination and reflection.  

Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana (Rosaceae)) near Tennent Mountain on the Mountains to Sea Trail (North Carolina) Photo by Mark Ellison

Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana (Rosaceae)) near Tennent Mountain on the Mountains to Sea Trail, North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Engaging in self reflection can have numerous beneficial outcomes for personal andleadership development, and nature offers an ideal setting to experience reflection free of the distractions of the modern world. Nature provides an environment that allows attention capacities to rest, offers privacy, helps to reduce stress, and includes soft fascination (things that are of capture attention such as birds, waterfalls, sunsets) that leave room for reflective thought. Privacy is the temporary withdrawal from general society through physical or psychological means (Westin, 1967). The privacy available in nature provides a unique setting to utilize self reflection. It is through this withdrawal from everyday settings that one is better able to reflect and make evaluations about work and life situations.

Self reflection has been described as involving “active, persistent, and careful consideration” (Dewey, 1933, p.9). Boud et al (1985) describes it as “those activities individuals engage in to explore experiences” (p.19). Mezirow described reflection “as the process of critically assessing” (1991, p.104).  Reflection translates experience into learning (Seibert & Daudelin, 1999). The functions of reflective thought seem to be closely associated with the releasing of psychological stress and integrating one’s thoughts and experiences (Hammitt & Brown, 1984). With the many distractions experienced in modern life, limited time is available for reflection, self awareness and integration (Hammitt & Brown, 1984).

Being in a restorative natural environment that is away from normal everyday settings provides an opportunity to look at life in a different context, and possibly make connections between concepts that could not be made before. “A deeply restorative experience is likely to include reflections on one’s life, on one’s priorities, and possibilities, on one’s actions and one’s goals” (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989, p. 197).

The restorative benefits of nature make it an ideal environment for utilizing self reflection for personal and leadership development and should be utilized more fully in higher education settings, and by human resource development professionals. 

As an introduction to experiencing the benefits of self reflection while in nature, spend at least 30 minutes in a natural setting that is free of distractions. Utilize all of your senses to experience the various aspects of the environment around you. After at least 30 minutes, reflect on what that experience was like. What did you notice? How did it contrast with the settings you are typically in each day? Make it a priority to set aside time in your schedule on a regularly basis to be in nature. Begin to utilize this time to focus on an area of your life and begin to reflect. Bring along a journal to jot down your thoughts.

Boud, D., Keogh, R. & Walker, D. (1985). Promoting reflection in learning: A model. In D. Boud, R. Cohen, & D. Walker (Eds.), Using experience for learning (pp. 73-86). Bristol, PA: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath.

Hammitt, W., & Brown, G. (1984). Functions of privacy in wilderness environments. Leisure Sciences, 6(2), 151-166.

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

Keogh, & D. Walker, Reflection: Turning experience into learning (pp. 18-40). London: Kogan Page.

Mezirow, J. ( 1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Seibert, K. & Daudelin, M. (1999). The role of reflection in managerial learning: Theory, research and practice. Westport, CT: Quorum

Westin, A. (1967). Privacy and freedom. New York: Antheneum.