In the past several years, you may have seen headlines claiming that plants can help our mental health. Well, that is indeed true. But how do you know which studies are reputable? Which are woo-woo, feel-good stories stronger on common sense than fact? Which are flat-out misinterpretations meant to excite more than educate? And which include what the science truly shows?
I myself used to feel confused about the topic until I spent a year writing a book on it. So, to help suss out the truth, I thought I’d spotlight the most reputable, longtime researchers in the area of plants’ mental health effects.
First off, the idea that nature is good for the mind and body goes back thousands of years. I’m not saying anything new here. But it’s only been in the last 40–50 years that scientific studies have showed evidence backing up the claim. We’re learning more and more about exactly what kinds of nature experiences help, how long to engage in them, and why they’re effective. Here are five researchers who’ve devoted their lives to answering those questions. If you see an article where they’re cited, you can be assured the science is solid.
1. Roger Ulrich
Roger Ulrich is a health care design professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. He’s studied (among other things) the positive effects of plants on the mind and nervous system since the 1980s. He conducted an often-cited study about how patients, who were recovering from gallbladder surgery in the 1970s, recovered more quickly and with fewer complications when their beds faced views of outside trees and greenery rather than a wall. Ulrich has also led a load of other nature-relaxation studies but this is his most famous.
2. Yoshifumi Miyazaki and Qing Li
Yoshifumi Miyazaki and Qing Li have been studying the ancient practice of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing since the early 2000s in Japan. This anthropologist from Chiba University and immunologist at the Nippon Medical School have collaborated on several projects. They’ve tracked stressed-out business people and their aimless walks in forests to show how slowly meandering among trees not only lowers stress but restores a positive mood and literally boosts the immune system (e.g., increases cancer-fighting cells). Li’s book Forest Bathing has become a cornerstone in the literature.
3. Rachel Kaplan
Rachel Kaplan (and Stephen Kaplan, now passed away) is an environmental psychologist, retired from the University of Michigan, who’s studied the effects of natural environments on our well-being since the 1970s. The Kaplans are most known for positing their Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which proposes that natural landscapes contain the softly fascinating but relaxing patterns our minds need to restore our depleted attention. This is why we feel energized after walking through a park rather than an alleyway. Many researchers have cited and added to the Kaplans’ vast body of convincing evidence.
4. Jo Barton
Jo Barton is a health and exercise researcher at the University of Essex who’s studied the effects of exercise in nature for about the last dozen years. She and fellow researchers have found that exercise in greenery improves self-esteem, betters one’s mood, and lowers stress much more than indoor workouts. Her institute’s research coined the term ‘Green Exercise.’ Their work is impressive because they’ve studied over 1200 participants across multiple investigations, and have used consistent measurement tools to show that green exercise, even brief, five-minute bouts, affect the young and old, the infirm and well, and those in between, in extremely positive ways.
5. Terry Hartig
Terry Hartig at Uppsala University in Sweden is a psychologist who’s studied the restorative effects of nature and green spaces since the 1980s. He’s studied how greenery helps us live longer, restores our fatigued mind, lowers our stress, encourages social interaction, alleviates depression, helps us become mindful, and more. He’s been a key researcher in the area of public health and urban planning.
There are hundreds more researchers doing fascinating work across the globe. I haven’t mentioned other folks in Europe, Australia, Asia, the United States, and Canada who are examining the effects of plants and greenery in other ways. For instance, there’s a whole body of research looking at the effects of plants in schools, offices, hospitals, etc. This field is growing and more is being published every day.
One criticism of this area of study is it’s often based on observation and self-reporting. Of course, in psychological studies that’s often the case. However, scientists can quantify the effects of stress through the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, blood pressure, heart rate, and so on. Another criticism is that nature is difficult to define. Still, researchers carry on to answer that question too.
Over thousands of years, human beings have done an outstanding job of sheltering from the outside elements. Now that we’ve perfected the art, it may be time to look at how we can take advantage of our first natural home and reconnect with plants for our mental health again.