Illustration by: Priyal Shah
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“Humanity is the product of its evolved relationship to nature, countless yesterdays of ongoing interaction and experience of the natural world. Our senses, our emotions, our intellect, and even our culture developed in close association with, and in adaptive response to, the non-human world” – Stephen Robert Kellert 2012, Source (Human-Nature Connection Module, Biomimicry 3.8)
So on 26th March, late afternoon, when things were not looking good, I went to meet his doctor, a renowned cardiologist, who had been my father’s strength during the years.
I remember, sitting in front of him, discussing the situation, and two questions just came out of me, like I was guided to ask them:
I remember standing outside the hospital, choked, the whole world in a blur, my heart sunk to the bottom of my stomach. I called my husband. He listened, and said, `I am there first thing tomorrow morning. Call me as many times until then. We are in this together’.
It was now time to head home. My father would be waiting. The minute that thought entered my head, physically and mentally a whole new energy took over, for which I have no words to explain to this day, what such an energy feels like. I returned to my father, in fullness, and over the course of the next few days, my husband, my brother, close family members, dad’s outstanding friends, did everything we could to provide my father comfort.
On 1st April, 2013, Monday midnight, dad passed.
I share this because I have replayed the three months of that year, especially that particular week, and the following few days of ceremonial rites and rituals, many times over in my head for several reasons. But the one strong theme, I stayed curious about was this.
It was by far one of the most challenging incidents of my life. Faced with death of someone so close and precious:
Wise Elders always talk about how the body gets the necessary energy to cope with a particular demanding situation or execute something very important, when it is crucial. But the questions I had held subconsciously, or probably what I was more curious about was,
What really happens in the body? What aids the behavior and the actions, biologically, or let us say, scientifically, in such a circumstance?
Over the course of the years that followed, I did not intentionally seek answers to this question, but I certainly moved into learning more about the human body. Explanations and answers came in, in ways it always does, allowing me to connect the dots.
The scientific understanding came from two different sources helping me weave it together. From Dr. Anju Venkat, of The Health Awareness Centre in Mumbai, and from Dr. Thomas Baumeister, Professor and Researcher, who leads the Human-Nature Connection module in the Biomimicry’s Master Program. This learning, combined with observing other species in the natural world including my own behaviour thereafter through this understanding, showed me the evolutionary nature of our bodies, and it’s responses to survive on this Earth.
In other words, I realized that we are still so, so Savannah in our being.
As Dr. E.O.Wilson, America’s renowned biologist says, `In short, the brain evolved in a biocentric world’.
99% of our evolutionary process, took place in the natural world. How we are made, how we respond, is still from that Savannah body.
As a species, we evolved on this earth 250,000 years ago. Out of this, we spent 190,000 years, which means about 99% of our time on earth as a species inhabiting the heart of the natural world, and so our physiology, our senses, our emotions, our body’s intelligence developed in interaction and in kinship with it, attuning and responding to this totally alive environment.
Even though we began to practice agriculture about 12,000 years ago, we still lived in deep contact with the natural world. It is only in the last 300 years, we began to move out of that intense interaction into mass production of goods and services, but in the evolutionary timescale, such a time period is too short for most of our physiological processes and responses to undergo a shift, to what is now, for most of us a concrete and digital environment.
So, how we respond to situations, and how we recover from it, are both physiologically wired to how we would, if we lived amidst the wild, or in the thick of the natural world.
What happened to me in 2013, a highly stressful situation, is something I am sure many of you have experienced in different ways, maybe in different circumstances too – at its extreme it could be the death of a loved one, an accident, a major illness or losing home to a natural calamity. And in a slightly milder form, nevertheless stressful, might be, a project with a deadline; upcoming exams; driving for 10-12 hours straight; anything that demands our immediate focused attention. And, once it is over, there is feeling of energy collapse and exhaustion, with the body pleading for rest and recovery. This seems to be the loop we experience.
Stress – Action – Exhaustion – Need for Rest, Recovery, and Recharge – Restored function
In the 1980s, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan began their research introducing us to what is called the Attention Restorative Theory (ART). They found that we have two types of attention:
- Directed Attention or Voluntary Active Attention
- Involuntary or Reflex Attention
In the Directed Attention, we are able to give our complete focus and attention on the difficult or challenging situation on hand, like the one I experienced with my father, or could even be a function like the act of driving. What is important to understand here is that, this kind of attention is a limited resource. We run out of it. This is also what is called our cognitive fuel, where the brain is in the act of filtering, tuning out other noise, paying selective attention, to solve the problem.
When this fuel to focus runs out, there is mental fatigue, and the body needs recovery and recharge of this ability again. So, after a long drive, we prefer to rest. After a big project, we want a few days off. When we have come out of an emergency, we want to recuperate. In most of us, a the body craves to do so, by heading to the mountains, staying on a beach, booking a forest lodge, being in any form of open vista, and abundant scenery. We share our preferences thus:
This is body moving into Involuntary Attention. Something that doesn’t demand our attention in a way which needs effort, and this it turns out are certain elements of the natural world that our body naturally seems to lean into. As Dr. Baumeister mentioned, `the very environment that led to the heightened alertness and attention that was needed, the same environment has the capacity to restore our attention and increase our chance of survival’.
Evolution is so clever. If we as a species inhabited the forest, and our stress came out of it, in the form of danger, in the form of an attack from another species or our very own, in the form of a calamity, then certain elements from that very environment, also played a significant role in the recovery of our attention, in the recharge of our body – like watching the sunrise, listening to the sound of the river flowing, sitting in the vast expanse of a scenery, or amidst the mountains, being in the warmth and security of loved ones.
Though a significant population like us, no more live in the Savannah or forests anymore, and our stressful situations are more urban in nature, yet our response is still Savannah, and our restoration process benefits the company of nature.
Around the same time as the Kaplans, Roger Ulrich, psychologist and architect, introduced another aspect of the role of nature in restoration, through his Stress Reduction Theory, known as SRT.
One of the studies Roger Ulrich conducted, changed the way everything from hospitals, to schools and housing projects began to be designed.
He conducted a research at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital, where the team reviewed medical records of people recovering from gallbladder surgery. All other things being equal in this study, patients with bedside windows looking out into nature, had shorter postoperative hospital stays, needed 50% less medication, and had fewer post-surgical complications than patients who were facing a brick wall building.
Several other research studies thereafter in Amsterdam, Toronto, and other urban cities, have consistently proven the positive impact of designs where elements of nature are a part of it. These have shown increased attention spans, lower incidents of depression, and proven that greener the neighborhood, the lower the body mass index of children.
Through what Dr. Venkat from The Health Awareness Centre, further highlighted about this very topic, I was able to weave together what happened in 2013:
As a species, we have an in-built survival response to deal with stressful situations, that has evolved for millions of years in interaction with the rest of the natural world. And so this is exactly what kicked in, in 2013.
I needed Directed Attention, which stimulated my Sympathetic nervous system that governs the fight-or-flight behaviour to release cortisol, that leads to muscle tension, increase the blood pressure and fill me up with the energy necessary to flee or fight. Since my choice was the `fight’ response, I had what they say `mustered up my energy’ to support my father in every way I could. With my father passing, the shock, along with the exertion, drained out the last of my cognitive fuel. Now my body moved needed rest, recovery and recharge. So it shut off all other needs and desires, and my Parasympathetic Nervous System, also called the `rest and digest’ part of the brain, aided the recovery and restoration process. This was possible with my actions to be with nature as much as possible, and to be in the company of my husband and few other loved ones. As the brain started to release the Oxytocin chemical, reassuring `all is well’, the rest of the brain faculties slowly resumed their functions.
Dr. Venkat urges how essential it is, for the human body, that we complete this stress loop, that starts with body’s response to danger, and ends with body’s recharge through rest and restoration.
I could see how the survival and thriving of my body, is in direct connection to the whole that I am a part of – NATURE.
This helps us also understand why the body cannot differentiate between real danger, or anticipated danger, or imagined danger. Whether it is while watching a thriller or a suspense film, or when we imagine that we about to be threatened, the message we send the body is that we are already in danger, and the stress triggers the same chemicals, and reduces our ability to focus or pay attention. Our body has still not evolved to respond differently to different thoughts:
Today, we as humanity are facing the pandemic situation in different ways. Some of us are stressed because the tiger is truly in the room. In such a case where the danger is real, the body moves into an automatic in-built response preparing you physiologically to take the actions you choose, to use your cognitive fuel. And when the danger is over, allow yourself the period of recovery and recharge needed. Help your loved ones also move through this.
However, equal amount of humanity is also going through high anxiety and are moving through phases of imagined or anticipated danger.
Some of these maybe valid fears. However, because our Savannah bodies cannot differentiate between real and imagined danger, it begins to continuously release cortisol in the system, eventually weakening our cognitive fuel.
Despite knowing this, it might be difficult for many of us to stop this thinking. So, what actions can we take then?
Part of that answer, surrounds us.
Maybe we can pick elements of the environment that has the capacity to restore and recharge us, and put them into use right now. Isn’t it beautiful that the body when given the right elements, has the capacity to restore itself?
We can take in fresh air and sunlight regularly. Even if our urban environments give us access parks nearby, we can go out and engage with it. If the apartment block has just a few trees in the compound, we can still connect with it by sitting under it, taking deep breaths. We can tend to plants. If all this is still inaccessible where we live, we can watch a nature documentary by David Attenborough, or we can frequently plan relaxed evening meals without any digital connection, with our loved ones. Of course, if we are blessed to have more nature surrounding us, then we can use their help in restoration.
Time and again scientific research and results have proven that our recovery rate is faster in nature, and it restores our mental alertness quickly too. This is said to be the reflex associated with the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system.
Which means, it has been tried and tested for millions of years.
This evidence, brings to us the need to preserve, protect and slowly increase the size and scale of natural elements and spaces that surround us in our designs. Policy makers, law makers, city planners, architects, and even as responsible members of the community, we can use this scientific evidence to find ways to bring back such restorative spaces into our life again. Our human bodies is nature, and needs the rest of nature to function optimally.
We might be just 20 years old, 40 years old, or 60 years old as Anjan, or Keshav, or as Grandma, or Grandpa. But the body we inhabit is millions of years old. So I invite you, in one of our most challenging phases as humanity, let us take the help of what we are a part of, and co-evolved with – Nature.
May we each find your restorative nature elements, in our surroundings and beyond, that can nourish our still Savannah bodies.