A brain injury left me unable to do anything ‘normal’. Then I made a discovery that changed everything
As the world’s changed in the past few months I’ve experienced a sense of deja vu. I’ve been here before. This feels familiar.
But the last time this happened, I was alone and no-one knew what was going on.
A few years ago I suddenly couldn’t socialise, go to cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, cinemas or the office.
I couldn’t distract myself with books, TV or music. There were certainly no video chats with friends down the road or on the other side of the world.
I couldn’t cook a simple meal, let alone sourdough — and I’m normally pretty good in the kitchen.
I was forced to slow my life right down, and at first it was torture. All I could do was sit in my backyard and stare at the trees.
It took months for the diagnosis and many more months to recover. But in that time I made a discovery that changed my life.
After I suffered a mild traumatic brain injury after a car knocked me off my bike, I discovered my path to recovery was through nature.
And I still use the natural world to improve my focus and concentration, lift my moods and get rid of headaches.
Swapping urban noise for nature
The accident happened in 2015. I was on the way to an exercise class in my local park when I woke up on the road in intense pain.
I didn’t know what had happened. It was only when I got home from the hospital that the extent of my injuries started to emerge.
The next day I picked up the novel I was reading. I couldn’t comprehend the paragraphs, the text didn’t make sense and a strong headache kicked in.
I was devastated. Reading was a huge part of my life at home and work.
Next I found I couldn’t listen to music, or care for my children.
I was a journalist working at Insight on SBS TV at the time. My kids were aged two and five.
My partner was frantically running his arts organisation. We had no relatives in Australia. This accident turned our lives upside down.
We were blessed to have friends rally around us. Meals with handmade cards appeared on our doorstep, and offers to care for our daughters.
The brain injury left me super sensitive to sound. It was like the volume was turned up on everything.
For many months I couldn’t handle conversations with more than one person.
Loud cafes and bars were unbearable — even the noisy school grounds at drop-off were too much.
But I found the sounds of nature had the opposite effect and helped to alleviate my constant headaches.
I started deliberately replacing urban noise and social chatter with waves crashing on Bondi Beach, waterfalls in the forest or bird song along our local Cooks River.
There was a particular lightbulb moment, six weeks after the accident, when friends invited me and the kids on a bushwalk.
I felt my focus and concentration picking up as we traversed the steep track through Heathcote National Park just south of Sydney. It was the first day since the injury that I hadn’t had a headache.
Later I discovered that spending time in the natural environment also lifted the depression and anxiety triggered by being away from work for so long, with no idea when I would return.
As I gained confidence in the world I started doing long day hikes.
I wouldn’t have considered heading into the bush alone before the accident. Now, still, it’s my go-to when I get a rare day to myself.
But all this self-medicating was just based on my personal anecdotal experience, firmed up after stumbling across a couple of magazine articles pointing to the health benefits of nature.
What the science says
I wanted to know more. What was it about nature that helped me recover from a brain injury? The sights, sounds, smells or tactile experience?
On a practical level, I needed to know how to dose myself. Quick nature bursts throughout the day, such as looking out a window at a tree, daily short walks to a park, weekly hikes or a weekend away camping once a month?
And how much difference did it make if that nature time was spent in my backyard, or did I need to get out of town and immerse myself in bigger wilder patches of green?
Turns out I was asking the same questions as the scientists looking into this.
While I was researching the Brain on Nature podcast I discovered a burgeoning multi-disciplinary field that’s working to shed light on these queries.
David Strayer is professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah. He told me that our increased screen time has led to more multi-tasking, and the combination puts a strain on our brains.
"One of the best solutions we’ve found is to set that aside and go out and walk for a bit. You don’t then use those prefrontal regions of the brain to try and multitask," he says.
"That’s why we see these bursts of creativity after you’ve set a problem aside for a while. You’re letting the brain rest.
"What we’re seeing is that if you’re walking in a busy urban area with lots of traffic and things you have to interact with, lots of man-made things, that’s probably not going to be so restorative.
"The best place to do it is in a park, or you can go on a hike in the bush, where you can kind of get away from it all."
I also spoke with Avik Basu, an environmental psychologist and research area specialist and lecturer at the school for environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan.
He told me that lots of studies looking at simple ways of interacting with nature — from indoor plants to views out windows to little community gardens — have found even small doses of nature were better than none at all.
I wanted to know how people cope when they don’t get any access to nature.
"I would say that the cost of living in modern environments is reflected in a lot of the pathologies that we nowadays see. Think about ADHD, think about overwork and over-stress," Basu says.
"Is there a relationship here to the kinds of places that we’ve built for ourselves? And how different it is from the environments that our brains evolved in?"
Some countries allow doctors to prescribe nature. Scotland’s Shetland Islands launched a project to get doctors to prescribe nature under its National Health System.
But it’s a difficult area to study, and even though researchers have been looking for answers for decades, most medical doctors won’t prescribe time in nature.
"It hasn’t pierced the bubble of the medical community. Perhaps because there is no profit for drug makers, if nature is readily available," Basu says.
Nature and mood
Ming Kuo runs the Landscape and Human Health Lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Her research found that kids at schools with green grounds behaved better and performed better academically.
She also found that just having trees outside apartment windows was linked with residents being less likely to be violent or commit crimes — even when researchers adjusted for factors like socioeconomic status.
Kuo takes the basic premise that proximity to nature could benefit us, and sees how this manifests in society.
"Two of the effects that are most clearly known are that contact with nature, views of nature, help rejuvenate our attention and they also help us relax and in a kind of profound way. And surprisingly both of those very simple effects have really huge ramifications," she says.
"We’re better not just at sort of cognitively effortful work but we’re also better at various social things, because negotiating a difficult disagreement with someone takes mental effort and the capacity to inhibit unfortunate or unhelpful impulses."
And even if you prefer concrete and glass, you’ll still help your brain by going outside.
Marc Berman runs the University of Chicago’s Environmental Neuroscience Lab.
He says an important finding from their studies is that even if people don’t have a good time in nature, they still get some of the benefits.
"I don’t want to say that that mood isn’t important but it’s not the whole story. And there are lots of people that really enjoy cities a lot more and don’t like nature very much. But actually you could still get the cognitive benefits," he says.
He sent people out walking in the cold and wet and found while they didn’t have a nice relaxing time, they still had improvements in attention and concentration.
As our lives evolve to become more urban, indoors and screen-based, these questions about how nature affects us become more pertinent.
But while as humans we want to be able to dissect and determine exactly how nature benefits us, the reality is the natural environment and our relationship to it is probably too complex.
I’ve come to realise the more I allow myself to connect with the natural world — to be present to its complexity, to notice the plants and the sounds and the textures — the more my brain thanks me for it.
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July 6, 2020 at 07:24AM