Why you should stop what you're doing and look at a tree
Why on earth should I stop what I’m doing and look at a tree? Because it really does help to reduce your stress levels. And when we are living in strange times when stress is added to stress every day, we need to use every trick in the book to try and reduce those stress levels. While we are being asked to stay at home to stop the spread of coronavirus, we are still being encouraged to get outside once a day - so let’s maximise that time.
We know that being in nature is restorative. There are health benefits when we're in it and we start to suffer when we are away from it. But believe it or not, even looking at an image of a tree will naturally start to bring about a feeling of calm: our heart rate slows; our blood pressure drops; our breathing calms down and deepens; blood flows more smoothly and muscles relax and our stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline are lowered. Don’t you start to feel better just reading that?
But why trees and nature?
We evolved in open spaces and forest habitats that are vastly different from the urban environments most of us live in today. Many of us spend hours looking at screens and their rapidly shifting content doesn’t allow us to grasp and absorb any detail before it races on to something else: a pattern directly opposite to the environment we evolved in.
Natural images have a particular spatial structure that human brains find easier to process. They are what's called 'scale invariant' which means that no matter how much you enlarge them they contain the same amount of detail. The brain is able to process invariant images efficiently using a small number of neurones. Non-natural images, particularly containing the stripes and patterns so common in urban environments, are scale variant and they also have large colour differences rather than the more gentle changes found in nature. Looking at those quickly becomes uncomfortable. That’s because the brain has to use abnormally large amounts of oxygen to process them and that causes strain which presents as visual discomfort.
This is thought to be the brain protecting itself to conserve its energy reserves. It really doesn’t like being bombarded by what it considers non-natural sights. So looking at, absorbing and interpreting natural images with their spectrum of colours and detail is what our brains are physiologically and psychologically tuned to do.
And that’s why looking at a tree makes you feel better.
So, even if you aren't able to get outside at the moment, open your blinds, move your desk closer to a window or take a chair to where you can get a view of a tree. Eat your lunch there enjoying that more natural view. Try and grab a few minutes here and there to just stare outside: this is not dead time as it will improve your productivity and emotional wellbeing. If there are no trees to be seen from the windows or close at hand to sit next to at lunchtime, then change your screen saver or computer background to images of trees or a natural landscape. Take a few deep breaths and imagine you are there. It might not be quite as relaxing as being outside in nature, but it's better than nothing.
So now you know. Looking at trees isn't as daft as it sounded. It's just one of the many restorative blessings of nature.
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