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Natural affinity


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Raúl Bermejo Orduna

coordinator of the Environmental Sciences Landscapes Program of the School of Sciences and researcher of the BIOMA Institute.

Some time ago I read in the press a story of hope, one of those that from time to time give us a breath of fresh air in the face of so much current events. Someone, broken by life, undertook a journey of several years through a natural environment of great beauty, hoping that the experience would help him heal. Several years later, his particular odyssey had allowed him to pull himself together, rebuild his life and restore his family ties.

It is possible that whoever reads these lines knows similar stories, or examples with which they have some parallels. There are groups in different countries around the world that work for the social inclusion of people through physical activity, reflection and Education in unique natural environments, of which we have some very close examples. In another context, forest baths have recently become widespread and popular in several countries, as an effective internship for the care of our health and well-being. Surely, also, that many of us have resorted at some time to a well-known path or our favorite park, seeking to escape from routines or worries, to feel renewed after a while. Perhaps, on some occasion, contemplating a starry sky, a sunrise, or sheltered under a majestic tree, we have felt moved or especially connected with life.

What is there in nature, in the presence of natural elements, that makes us feel good? Rather, what is it in us that makes it possible for the natural environment to have that effect?

The biophilia hypothesis holds that humans possess an instinctive affinity for nature, a love of life defined by our "innate tendency to seek connections with the natural environment and other forms of life". The interaction with the environment during our evolutionary process would have led us to develop innate physiological, emotional and behavioral responses to certain environmental stimuli, which can be modulated by cultural factors and individual experiences. In general terms, he argues, we would be adapted to function in a natural environment and under natural influences. However, our technological and social development , although it has enabled us to meet our needs and extend our life expectancy in a way never seen before, has also led us to favor environments and lifestyles that are far removed from this hypothetical biological framework and that have negative impacts on our health.

Numerous programs of study show that exhibition to natural stimuli and contact with nature can contribute to improve our health and well-being. These benefits would be produced by direct stimulation of our organism, by the absence in nature of factors that have a negative impact on our health, and by the promotion of healthy lifestyles associated with physical activity and social interaction. Physiological benefits include improved cardiovascular and respiratory health, pain relief, immune system enhancement and improved sleep quality. In terms of mental health, contact has been found to promote positive moods and reduce negative ones, reduce stress, anxiety and aggression, and increase sociability. The feeling of connection with nature and the frequency of visits to natural environments are related to a greater sense of well-being and better overall mental health. Some recent proposals, such as guided forest therapy, could be effective in the care of certain mental disorders.

Immersion in nature would also bring cognitive benefits, by favoring the restoration of processes fatigued by states of constant attention and vigilance. It has been found, for example, that it favors creativity and reinforces the functional report and concentration. Likewise, some experiences suggest that it promotes prosocial behaviors, such as altruism and cooperation, which the authors attribute to an increased sense of self-transcendence: the beauty perceived when immersed in the natural world could induce in us a sense of deep connection with people nearby and with other elements on a larger scale than oneself and the group to which one belongs.

In the natural environment we have within our reach an accessible and effective means with which to contribute to the care and promotion of our health and wellbeing, which could perhaps favor social cohesion and inspire pro-social attitudes and behaviors that would benefit everyone. What we learn about our link seems to offer another opportunity to reflect on our technological, social and territorial development , and to rethink the spaces we inhabit and the way we do it, the benefits of which will make our societies more respectful of our own nature and, precisely for that reason, more sustainable and resilient.