Most people sense the benefits of being out-of-doors. But can science explain why nature is so alluring? David Nicholson-Lord on the latest research
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God made the country and man made the town. That was how the poet William Cowper expressed it it the 18th century, and although the sentiment is a little trite for modern tastes, we can see what he means. Towns are artificial, nature is, somehow, genuine. And in an age which has largely abandoned traditional notions of God, we retain the attachment to nature. In fact, many people would argue, it has developed into an obsession.

The urge to "get away from it all" - in the main, from harassed urban lives - underpins the world's biggest industry, tourism. And for most people, whether it is the weekend cottage or the annual holiday, the destination is nature - beaches, mountains, beauty spots. A new study by the Countryside Commission, published this month, shows that six out of ten people visit the countryside on day visits during the year and nearly half the six billion annual days out from home are to country, coast and seaside. And by far the most popular activity when we arrive - 15 times more so than, say, going to an open-air event - is walking.

What do people like about the countryside? First, the study finds, the overwhelming majority - 93 per cent - benefit from "just knowing it is there", whether they visit or not. The feature they like most is the sense of relaxation and well-being, followed by "fresh air" and peace and quiet. And over half of us would like to live in the country twice as many as do at present.

Many surveys have highlighted a widespread desire amongst people to move - eventually - to the countryside: hence continuing strain on the planning system. Yet despite the profound implications of our love-affair with nature - not least the appearance of a global environmental movement - science has largely left it to the poets to decode. Over the last 20 years, however, the picture has begun to change.

A recent review for English Nature by Reading University's department of horticulture and landscape examined nearly 250 studies by psychologists and concluded that there were fundamental lessons for our cities and our lifestyles. Merely being able to see some greenery, it found, had "powerful preventative and curative influences" on human health. Yet nature-worship, mass movement though it may now be, remains a complex phenomenon: its roots, as the study makes clear, are elusive.

The health-giving role of nature was recognised by the Victorians who laid out urban parks as an antidote to the squalor of the new industrial towns. A century and a half later, science has lent empirical support to their intuition. A study at one American hospital showed that patients recovered more quickly from operations, with fewer complications and less need for drugs - drug intake was reduced by almost two-thirds - if they could see trees through their windows rather than a blank brick wall. Prisoners whose cells looked outwards on to countryside rather inwards on to to buildings suffered fewer headaches and stomach upsets and used the prison medical centre less.

Nature's healing properties are being put to increasing use. Horticultural therapy has developed the pleasures of gardening into a form of treatment, for groups such as the mentally disturbed and handicapped: last year the Alzheimer's Disease Society had a "dementia garden" at the Chelsea Flower Show. In the US, "wilderness therapy" - controlled expeditions into the great outdoors - has been practised widely at many psychiatric hospitals and juvenile centres.

One study into the effects of wilderness compared three groups taking time off work - the first on a backpacking trip, the second on an ordinary holiday,the third staying at home - and found that the two holidaying groups were measurably happier at the end of it, unlike the stay-at-homes, but that the wilderness trekkers showed a larger degree of mental restoration than the other groups. They were able to perform proof-reading, a task requiring concentration and attention, much better, for example. Researchers also tested people who went on a nature walk in a city park and found they were happier, less aggressive and more able to concentrate than others who had either taken a walk through the city or "relaxed" in the laboratory with magazines, comfortable chairs and a radio.

In most experiments, the man-made environment comes out badly. Tests on university students showed that photographs of urban scenes made them depressed and aggressive, in contrast to the friendlier and more contented reaction of those shown pictures of "natural" countryside. A "sensory mapping" exercise in one American town showed that four-fifths of its most prized sites were natural landscapes; the most disliked areas were "constructed-urban." Three-quarters of the most memorable sensory experiences cited by residents were linked with "primitive-natural" landscapes.

Such findings often raise as many questions as they answer. What is the "positive" component of the natural views, for example? The colour? Green, like blue - and unlike red or yellow - is known to be a long-wavelength "low-arousal" colour, producing less muscle tension and more pleasurable moods. Scientists have speculated that this is linked with the landscapes in which man evolved, where greens and blues predominated.

Human biochemistry can explain some of the processes. People need oxygen, clean air and water: plants oxygenate, humidify and detoxify polluted atmospheres. As conditions like seasonal affective depression, so-called "winter blues", demonstrate, humans also need light. When fresh air, light and water are withdrawn, as in many office blocks over the last quarter- century, humans display signs of pathology - the condition known as sick- building syndrome, for example. To combat this, many buildings now incorporate atria, or indoor courtyards, often with plants and running water, into buildings. A recent study by Oxford Brookes University found that introducing plants into a hospital atrium lowered levels of anxiety among patients.

Yet physiology offers only a partial explanation. One way nature "heals" may be through reducing stress hormones and boosting the immune system. But why should nature have this effect on human beings?

Evolution may provide some clues. Many scientists believe that because humans developed in the African savanna - park-like grasslands dotted with trees - we retain an affinity for such a landscape, attempting to recreate it in our gardens and parks. EO Wilson, the Harvard scientist and author of Biophilia, argues that "whenever people are given a free choice, they move to open tree-studded land on prominences overlooking water." According to the landscape historian Jay Appleton, the need for early hunter-gatherers to see without being seen has imprinted on our minds the desire for "prospect and refuge": this is the pattern of our favourite landscapes.

Childhood is another potent influence. Nineteen out of 20 adults, asked to describe the most significant place in their childhood, listed somewhere out of doors, drawing sketches of trees, rocks, bushes. A study by Christa Rohde and Tony Kendle of Reading University suggests that this is a nostalgia for the intense sensory experiences people experienced as children.

Research with residents of Greenwich by University College, London, has shown that nature has a remarkable symbolic value in cities. It acts, for example, as a "gateway to a better world" - a world that is non-materialistic, uncommercialised, rich in sensory impressions and, perhaps most important, alive. "Open spaces are enjoyed first and foremost because they are part of a living world in which plants, insects, birds, water, mud, birdsong and earthy smells all have their place," was the researchers' conclusion.

Nature, in other words, cannot be seen in isolation from the man-made world. As society grows more busy, "artificial" and regimented, people demand the opposite from the countryside. Student campers in the US, asked to describe what they enjoyed most, put the natural environment top of the list, followed by "cognitive freedom" - the freedom to control one's thoughts, actions and use of time.

According to the Reading University study, nature confers several other psychological benefits. In contrast to the confusion of the man-made world, for example, it offers a "sense of coherence" - and hence a prop to mental health. "It is largely devoid of negative feedback" - it does not criticise - and thus reinforces self-esteem. It also offers what the Kaplans, a husband-and-wife team of environmental psychologists, have called "soft fascination" - clouds and sunsets, for example, provide a cue for meditation, holding our attention but leaving us "ample opportunity to think about other things." Why do urban landscapes not hold such an appeal? Because, say the Kaplans, humans like to explore, and sunsets, unlike buildings, possess the attribute of "mystery".

Concepts such as soft fascination and mystery take us into unfamiliar territory. Nature is a potent source of what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called "peak experiences" - semi-mystical moments that submerge the ego and enhance our sense of being alive. Darwin probably experienced such a moment on his first encounter with a tropical forest in Brazil in 1832 - "wonder, astonishment and sublime devotion, fill and elevate the mind", he wrote - and they are surprisingly common. Surveys suggest that over a third of Britons experience such moments during their lives.

Freud called these experiences "oceanic". They appear to be one of the wellsprings of religion. The psychologist William James collected many for his book The Varieties of The Religious Experience, and found that most of the striking cases occurred out of doors. "Certain aspects of Nature," he wrote, "seem to have a peculiar power of awakening such mystical moods." Religious awe, he concluded, "is the same organic thrill we feel in a forest at twilight or in a mountain gorge."

What is it about Nature that unlocks such emotions? For Christians, it may represent the glory of God. But for many non-theist religions, Nature itself was alive: indigenous cultures shared a perception that some vital, indwelling force - known to Pacific Islanders, , for example, as mana - permeated living things. The German philosopher Rudolph Otto argued that the roots of religion lay in the recognition of a force that was mysterious, endlessly fascinating but "wholly other" - quite beyond human comprehension. According to the anthropologist Mircea Eliade, however, what impressed native cultures about the vital force in nature was neither that it was marvellous or extraordinary but that it appeared to represent "real existence."

Given the weight of such feelings, what is perhaps most remarkable about modern relationships with nature is that it has been excluded very largely from our daily lives. The Reading University study urges us to reverse this - by creating more accessible greenspace, for example. And six out of seven people questioned in the Countryside Commission survey say more natural space is needed around cities. The cost of excluding nature, in other words, may be far higher than we think. !