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Of minds red and blue: How urban living is assaulting our brains and how Nature can restore us to ourselves

Good ol’ Mother Nature—giver of life; cradle of civilizations; muse to poets, and discrete host to lovers’ trysts. Her summer radiance may have fallen dim, but She remains our best hope as we kick off the Winter Semester. This is a story of campus life and urban sprawl. It’s about our brains’ struggle to hold out against the mentally and emotionally deadening environment we’ve made for ourselves, and how a return to Nature can stave off student burnout. Along the way, we’ll meet scientists, learn about “Blue Mind” and neuroplasticity, and we’ll walk through a new exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver that showcases the power of nature in our lives. By the end, you will feel refreshed and enlightened, trust me.

First, let’s face a hard truth: Surely as day follows night, and night follows day, winter in Metro Vancouver has the power to break us like so many dried-up Christmas trees. Consider how I’ll be spending an average week, if you think I’m exaggerating. If history is to be any guide, I’ll log about twenty-three hours in classrooms, another thirty hours working on various group projects, and even more time studying online. The rest of my “free” time will be spent bussing to and from campus, eating, and sleeping, though I’m sure I’ll cut back on the latter two just to get out from under a hailstorm of deadlines.

Of course, that’s an easy week compared to those of us who have families or who put in work at low-paying, soul-draining jobs outside of school—or both. Many will succumb to that unending cycle of head colds and mouth sores that, sooner or later, will lay hold of us all. At this point in the grind, Spring Break can’t come soon enough. If only science would point to a safe, reliable way to salve our stress-addled minds…

But, how did we get here? What is it about students’ busy, always-on-the-go, never-have-enough-time routine that wears us down, makes us sick, and keeps us from the ones we love?

The short answer is that campus is slowly polluting our minds. Picture a typical classroom at BCIT. Feel yourself squirm in your plastic chair as you stare, unblinkingly, at the whiteboard in front of you, your feet rooting into the concrete floor as your instructor piles on the work. You’re immured in cold, steely walls that seem to close in on you from every direction. You feel your brain melting under the hum of fluorescent lights riveted into the ceiling like glowing ice-cube trays.

There is no escape: You can make a break for your car, assuming you can find it in that asphalt desert of parking lots. Or, you can put yourself at the ass-end of the lineup at the bus-stop. Either way, you’ll be back tomorrow.

[illustration sheku nafisi]

Humans simply aren’t meant to live like this.  That’s according to environmental psychologist Ming Kuo, who recently talked to NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast about the hidden health hazards posed by what she calls “the dark side of the environment.”  To be clear, Kuo’s gloomy description reflects her research at the University of Illinois and not the lifeless aesthetic at BCIT. Still, Kuo’s early work with animals in captivity shows the way forward if we want to understand how campus contributes to student burnout.

Kuo’s furry subjects fared poorly behind bars. They exhibited more psychological distress and were statistically likely to die younger than their wild cousins. What explained these results is something called “habitat selection theory,” which holds that animal species are cognitively and emotionally honed by the same environmental factors that shape their psychical traits through natural selection. Think of it as a meme showing Darwin ‘on the couch,’ with the Origin of Species author telling his shrink, “The unhappy corollary is, Kuo’s animals were never going to thrive outside their ecological niche.”

Highlighting the clinical implications for humans, Kuo recited the famous biologist Edward O. Wilson’s warning that, “organisms, when housed in unfit habitats, undergo social, psychological, and physical breakdown,” to which she added, “We are seeing precisely that in people.”  Kuo is among a growing number of scientists carrying on the insights of her mentors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, whose seminal work on the neuro-psychological phenomenon “directed-attention fatigue” laid the basis of current neurological understandings of how urban living—and, by extrapolation, campus life—affects the human brain. It turns out, Kuo’s “habitat selection theory” also explains the stress students battle on campus: We won’t thrive outside our natural environment, either.

For more on the Darwinian side of this discussion, I turned to evolutionary biologist Wallace J. Nichols’ book Blue Mind.  In these pages, Nichols’ combines his passion for oceanology and environmental conservation with clinical uses of brain-imaging technologies to show our innermost reactions to the outside world. With much of the book given over to how our brains preternaturally favor aquatic settings, the takeaway for students is the author’s practical observation that, “where we are affects how we feel.”  Apply this to how students process campus and it’s clear we’re fighting an uphill neurological battle from September through May. Just as in Kuo’s zoo study, it comes down as much to evolutionary biology as environmental psychology.

Unlike the African savannah our species walked out of a couple hundred-thousand semesters ago, our campus environs unceasingly bombard us with a host of attention-sapping stimuli our brains must instantly decipher and assimilate into experiential reality—if we are to stay sane, that is. It’s bad enough that prolonged concentration on complex tasks like crunching numbers or running CAD software steadily wear out the seat of cognition (and free will) in the frontal lobe. These mental operations are under our conscious control, and we can at least pump the breaks, so to speak, by tearing ourselves from our work long enough to pop an Advil.

Meanwhile, it’s the blaring car horns and flashing lights, the line-up at Tim Horton’s and other people’s noisy library conversations—to name but a few day-to-day aspects we can’t control—that draw most heavily not just on our thinking minds, but also on the emotional and threat-detection centres respectively in the hippocampus and amygdala. Unlike our conscious faculties, there’s no ‘turning off’ these neural regions. Nor can we ignore them. They operate perpetually, beneath our conscious control, because they evolved to alert our simian ancestors to environmental hazards before these could be registered consciously.

The problem for students is that our less-evolved ‘monkey brains’ can’t always discern between perceived dangers in the form of deadline anxiety and early morning traffic jams, and actual threats like a sabre-toothed tiger crouching in the high grass. When the brain can’t separate the things that keep us up at night and make us late for class from prehistoric predators wanting to eat us where we stand, exams loom over our angst-ridden minds as if tests were killer cats. It hardly matters neurologically if our urban environment is safer than the proving grounds of our Cro-Magnon past; not when our technical training here at BCIT is so mentally exhausting and our campus so luridly busy that our brains are pushed beyond capacity.

The Kaplans’ “directed-attention fatigue” sets in when we literally think and worry ourselves to near breaking-point.  The result can be what Nichols calls “Red Mind.”  In layman’s terms, Red Mind is that agitated panic that sets in as you scramble to put together a project the night before you present it in class. Neuroscientist Catherine Franssen offers a more clinical description of this florid mindset as: “an edgy high, characterized by stress, anxiety, fear, and maybe a little bit of anger and despair.”  It’s bad enough for students that acute exposure to this kind of stress impedes learning and memory-retention. Worse, Nichols warns chronic Red Mind sufferers are statistically likely to manifest symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. These run from impaired cognition to severe depression and crippling social anxiety—even a tendency to self-harm.

The solution to all of this is to get outside.

Regularly spending time in nature doesn’t simply palliate our withering minds, it actually reverses the damage brought on by our post-industrial environment. That’s because natural environments seem to have the effect of turning off the parts of our brains that think and engaging those that feel.

Creatives have been telling us this for centuries. One thinks here of those prolific skeptics of modernity, the Romantics, who rebelled against the cold reasoning of Enlightenment science. Seeking inspiration in Nature while steam power and the pendulum clock were brutalizing ancient ways of relating to the land, poets like John Keats and Lord Byron exalted the realm of lived experience above sheer intellect.

There’s a certain reassurance in the words of these long dead poets—one that speaks to our postmodern campus woes. As Byron famously rhymed in his narrative poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”:

There is pleasure in the pathless woods, / there is rapture in the lonely shore / there is society where none intrudes, / by the deep sea, and music in its roar; / I love not Man the less, but Nature more.

Keats, who famously pined, “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts,”  also insisted, “[t]he poetry of the earth is never dead.”

The irony is that for all the Romantics’ devotion to the sublime, scientific evidence supports their nature-worship better than highfalutin prosody ever could. To that end, our experience of nature soothes the brain by engaging what the Kaplans dubbed as our “involuntary attention.”  Think of it like this: Because the features of natural landscapes remain more or less constant, nature’s beauty draws on our attention in short, random spurts our minds don’t need to process at the level of conscious (or “voluntary”) thought.

If you’re unsure why this should be relaxing, consider that you don’t think about what’s happening when you see trees fluttering in the breeze. Instead, the visual disruption is so slight and so gradual, you ‘read’ the unfolding scene with little or no involvement from the parts of the brain involved in decision-making or predicting outcomes. Compare that to the high-speed symphony of on-road calculations you orchestrate just to survive your campus commute and it’s not hard to appreciate Nichols’ observation in Blue Mind that it’s the “high degree of statistical predictability” our brains crave in Nature.

So, what’s happening to our brains here? And how does it help us as students? The answer is twofold. First, with so much less for our brains to compute in the stillness of a forest for example, or in the lull of waves breaking on shore, the hippocampus and amygdala quickly gear down. Levels of the stress-hormone cortisol drop in the bloodstream as, breathing deeply, we start to let go of our conscious thoughts. Next, we’re able to shift out of Red Mind because our brains are plastic, meaning they can be reshaped (reprogrammed, so to speak) through sustained changes in behavior and environment. We enter Nichols’ titular “Blue Mind” after we get outside frequently enough to achieve what the author promises is, “an internal state of calm in which a person becomes more aware of their immediate embodied experience of the world and less concerned with events occurring ‘out there.’”

Whether this is a case of Nature returning us to ourselves, or of us returning to Nature, at some point Romantics and neurologists agree Nature replenishes the brain by untethering our embodied experience.

Better yet, Nichols recommends we take to the waves. “The mind on Nature” is said to be blue in light of Nichols’ claim that nature’s restorative effects on the mind are amplified by spending time in and around water.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the ocean, a lake, a river, or a stream; as long as we can play in it—or even look at it—we’re more likely to thrive near water.

This follows from the same evolutionary principle that informs Ming Kuo’s “habitat selection theory,” the same neurological transformation as when we spend enough time outside—only faster.  And this is only natural, Nichols argues, given that we’re surrounded by water even before we’re born, our bodies having formed suspended in the amniotic fluid of our mothers’ wombs. After that, our bodies are mostly water—our brains even more so. What’s more, the consensus among scientists who study human evolution has it that our earliest ancestors depended on animal protein harvested both from the sea and fresh water not merely to survive, but also to develop ever larger brains which gradually flourished into higher consciousness. Our species started on the African savannah, yes. But it was water that made us human.

Perhaps that’s why half a billion people worldwide annually vacation near water; why amorous couples steal away to the water’s edge when they want to be alone, and why, glued to computer screens at home and on campus, we can bring down our stress levels just by looking onto a desktop seascape.

But from a meta perspective, our yearning for nature can’t be reduced to the mental-health benefits that come from more outside-time. It’s actually an overarching phenomenon that scientists explain using biologist Ed Wilson’s concept of “biophilia,” or ‘love of life.’ Wilson, who warned that our city ways are gnawing away at our basic humanity, defined the term, “the rich, natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms.”

Wild Things curators Lee Beavington and Viviane Gosselin have tapped into this basic human instinct by exhibiting local indigenous people’s relations with the land against a backdrop of ecological colonialism. Taking a page from Blue Mind, it’s the ways Vancouver is swallowing its own waterways that whet the viewer’s curiosity. Sounds of rain are piped in through large speakers in a way that prompts museum-goers to think about where all that water drains once skies clear overhead. Most area tributaries, creeks, and streams now run under Vancouver’s streets, and the blue squiggles on a hydrological map of the city move one to reflect on how city planners have spoiled the traditional, sovereign, and unceded territories of the Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), Úxwumixw (Squamish), and (Musqueam) First Nations.

There is a way back from this. Guests are asked to pin-point wildlife sightings on a giant satellite photo of the Lower Mainland, and the tiny raccoons, coyotes, and even bears on so many tiny flags stuck into pixelated downtown intersections. Grainy suburban sprawl reminds us that we share these spaces with the creatures in our midst. Meanwhile, museum walls display info-blurbs reminding us that we can ‘daylight’ (a clever euphemism for digging up and uncovering) our creeks and streams long after they’ve been paved over, with others encouraging us to reintroduce native plant species to our backyard gardens. If you’re curious to know more, these and other home-grown solutions will be on display at this exhibit until next September.

After having taken all this in, I find myself carving out time for strolls along Burnaby Campus’ Guichon Creek between classes. There’s still enough sunlight filtering through the canopy of weeping willows that line the creek (recently daylit, itself) that the scenery is redolent of a surrealist painting. It isn’t exactly Monet, and I’m not sure if I’m running a “blue mind,” but I will say I think more clearly in this headspace. “Spring is coming,” I remind myself. Spring is coming.

Best of luck this semester, dear reader. Don’t stress so much.