A curious piece I read in The New Yorker last summer, “How Trees Calm Us Down,” is an insightful exploration about how leafy expanses bring healing more quickly than manmade constructs. The article, insightfully written by Alex Hutchinson, opens with an anecdote about patients who were recovering from gallbladder surgery. The people whose hospital windows faced a stand of deciduous trees were discharged a day earlier than those whose windows faced a wall. Isn’t it something to know that leaf peeping is therapeutic?
Leaf Peeping is Therapeutic
The researcher was Roger Ulrich, who became fascinated with the idea that simply looking at trees through a window could have curative effects. Hutchinson also sites a study in the journal “Scientific Reports” that states an additional ten trees on any given block in Toronto corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in the health of nearby residents. The lead researcher on the study, professor Marc Berman of the University of Chicago, noted that to achieve an equivalent benefit, each household would have to receive $10,000, or the members of the family would have to be made seven years younger. Wow! I thought as I digested these facts.
I’m often in awe of how educated professionals like these gather and process data, as well as the journalists who understand the process well enough to share the information coherently so that we laymen (and –women) can understand it. You are likely wondering when I’m going to get to the Pandora de Balthazár Experience moment today, so brace yourself: here it comes!
Hutchinson pins his premise that simply looking at a tree is enough to promote healing on the research of pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James, who made the distinction between “voluntary” and “involuntary” attention. The journalist explains that tasks like crossing a busy intersection or poring over a spreadsheet deplete finite reserves of voluntary attention. He compares these to involuntary attentiveness, which is far from an act as passive as quietly sitting in a dark room. “The environment has to have some kind of stimulation to activate your involuntary attention—your fascination,” Berman noted, adding that, “natural environments provide ‘softly fascinating stimulation’.” Within nature, this means your eye may be captured by the shape of a branch or a ripple in water, each of which entice your mind to follow along.
Channeling Your Involuntary Attention
This premise takes me back several decades to when I was convalescing in Hungary after taking water treatments. I was determined to heal from a broken neck that 22 different neurosurgeons told me could not be mended sufficiently to allow me to live my life as I had lived it before the injury. What sustained me during those many months was the fine Hungarian goose down in the ergonomic pillows I was nestled into; the luxurious bed linens; and the view from the ample windows in my room, particularly because these were framed in delicate lacey vintage and antique textiles.
What inspires me the most about the story Hutchinson shares is that Ulrich’s work is beginning to impact lives through a shift in how new hospitals are being built. I also share the journalist’s hopes that urban planners of large cities will follow suit. He ends the piece by noting that something deep within us responds to the three-dimensional geometry of nature; I certainly feel it when I’m leaf peeping. I bet your have experienced this in your own life; I certainly have. My fascination with the products I produce was the result of my time spent staring through windows at tall stands of trees as my healing unfolded in slow measure. I couldn’t be more thankful for the stimulation or the outcome. The blessings stemming from that time make me want to rush outside and hug a tree! Have you embraced one lately?
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