Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or literally “forest bathing.” It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a part of its national health program; a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing. Forest bathing became in Japan a medically sanctioned method for unplugging, before there were smartphones to unplug from. Since the Shinrin-yoku’s inception, many researches took place in order to test its efficacy; the results were documented benefits to one’s health plus proof in lowering blood pressure levels, blood glucose levels and stress hormones.
Shinrin-yoku … Western European countries and also the majority in the world would just call this a simple walk in the park, but little do they know about the restorative power that the natural environment has on humans.
Scientists have developed a wide range of theories about the specific physical and mental benefits that nature can offer, ranging from clean air and lack of noise pollution, to the apparent immune enhancing effects of a fine mist of “wood essential oils”. But the most powerful benefits, a new study suggests, may be due to the way trees, birds and sunsets gently draw our attention.
One of the studies found that volunteers suffering from depression, who took a 50 minute walk in a woodland park, improved their cognition. It was measured by the ability to remember a random string of digits and repeat them in reverse order. They then compared to similar group who took a walk through city streets. Another study found similar results in subjects who were not depressed.
The explanation lies in the distinction between two types of attention: ‘voluntary’, whereby we consciously concentrate on something; and ‘involuntary’, in which something catches our attention.
The ability to focus on voluntary attention is crucial in daily life (and for cognitive tasks such as remembering random numbers), but it is easily fatigued. A walk in the park gives the ‘voluntary attention’ a break, because your mind has the chance to wander aimlessly and is involuntarily engaged in the environment you are at that moment. You are away from loud noises and distractions, it tends to be less crowded, so you do not have to worry about bumping into people. Nature has an interesting incentive to look at, which attracts your attention automatically.
The city environment you are surrounded by honking horns, traffic lights, crowded side-walks and many more ingredients of modern life in a (big) city. You are constantly forced to practice your ‘voluntary attention’ to respond or block them, making you more cognitively exhausted.
If a walk in a park can have this kind of results, what would it be if you visited the Madeira Natural Park; our large biological reserve in Madeira with a unique endemic flora and fauna. Laurissilva forest, part of the Madeira Natural Reserves, is a wonderful forest filled with the most dense and extraordinary vegetation; tall trees, flowers and memorable paths. In other words … the ideal location to exercise Shinrin-yoku.
Travelers who have walked a Levada or visited the nature park here in Madeira, will have noticed the difference in air quality. Air is also an important healing ingredient in Shinrin-yoku. Researchers believe that trees emit a fine mist of health-giving “wood essential oils.” In a series of Shinrin-yoku studies, the researchers have reported that walking for two hours in a forest enhances immune function (as measured by levels of “natural killer cells”), reduces levels of stress hormones and lowers blood pressure, compared to similar walks in a city.
Trees offer an additional protective effect, even in a city. The level of vehicle emissions just 200 metres away from a road is already four times lower than it is on the side-walk next to the road. In a dense forest one will be continuously protected by our ‘green friends’.
Another component that Madeira abundantly has is … colours. It is a fact that nature scenes tend to feature more green than urban scenes. The Madeiran natural landscapes have more fractal patterns, such as coastlines, mountain ranges and broccoli florets … compared to the simple straight lines that characterize man-made environments. It is considered that looking at fractal patterns captures attention automatically, which leads to a more restorative process.
One can consider Shinrin-yoku and Madeira an ideal couple. However while the exact mechanisms of Shinrin-yoku still remain largely unknown, the practice itself continues to spread in the Western European countries and also here on Madeira Island. It has become a topic for further research and try-outs by us. It you have interest and want to participate, then send us an email
Shinrin-yoku can have a backlash-impact against modern society’s obsession with indoor-use technology and office culture. In an increasingly distracting and distracted world, the benefits of exposure to nature that are real and measurable, can be more important than ever. Madeira Island can be a pioneer for the Western society.