Get out, get smart


(Originally published in the Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted by permission.)

One of the premises of this column is that being outside is beneficial for people.

Fortunately, this doesn’t just include exercising. Riding your bike a hundred miles in a day is good; so is taking your morning coffee out onto your porch. So is taking a minute to go out and look up at the stars in the night sky.

We can grasp instinctively that these actions are worthwhile, that they make us, for lack of a better word, happy. But besides the vague and indefinable stuff, as scientists and researchers are realizing, there are tangible, testable benefits of interacting with nature. After at least a century of our culture’s pushing us indoors – for health, for safety, for comfort – it’s becoming clearer by the day that we need what the world outside has to offer.

For instance, I was astounded to learn that when a bacterium that humans commonly ingest or inhale outdoors was given to mice they were able to navigate a maze twice as fast. The study, done at the Sage Colleges in New York, suggests that we might also learn better when we are exposed to the natural world. Another study, at the University of Michigan, supported the idea that walks in nature help people think more clearly and creatively – as Albert Einstein, among many others, believed and put into practice.

You can take this in a whole other direction, too. We humans, until very recently, engaged with nature on a daily basis throughout our history as a species. So isn’t it possible that there are a whole bunch of abilities that we don’t use any more – which we might even have forgotten that we have?

Many people think so. Tests that investigate the uses of our senses have shown that we pick up signals from the world around us in a staggering number of ways. 

Blind people have learned how to navigate on bicycles by echolocation – they make clicking sounds and identify objects by the echoes, like bats. (Go to Youtube and type in ‘Daniel Kish’ for a demonstration.) Tests of humans’ ability to smell have found that we can follow 30-foot trails of perfume with all other senses blocked, and even follow sharp turns in the trails.

When we don’t use those senses, or participate in the natural world to the extent we could, it can be downright harmful. Some experts believe that the near-epidemics of near-sightedness and of some allergies in children have their basis in lack of exposure to the outdoors. Without the need to focus their eyes on long distances and faraway vistas, without the immunities acquired by exposure to common allergens, young people’s physical systems aren’t developing as they could – so the theory goes.

So, let’s recap: getting outside – walking in Abbo’s Alley, sitting outside at Julia’s, riding a bike to the post office – makes us happier, smarter, healthier, with better eyesight and better sense of smell. Need I say more?

(Note: I found some of this information in the writings of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.)