We have been speculating about the why of how being in Nature improves our mental and physical health. There is significant research proving that being in Nature lowers our stress levels, improves our immune system, sharpens our minds, and can heal us from trauma. But the why is much more mysterious. Our attempt to answer the why has been focused on our past experience as a species, the evolutionary impact of living and adapting to our lives outdoors for millions of years.
Our fortunate connection with Neil, the curator of Bonsai trees at the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego, California, helped us dig deeper into the question of why.
Standing next to the inspiring Bonsai tree exhibit at the garden, we were discussing how fractal patterns, self-repeating shapes and forms that are easily found in Nature, are so pleasant to look at.
“Just like the Bonsai,” Neil said, as he pointed to a small juniper. “You’ll notice the tree has an overall triangle shape.”
“As you begin to look closely, you’ll notice that triangle is repeated in smaller forms for each branch, then each sub-branch.”
As Neil pointed out the pattern, all of it jumped out so clearly for me. And it felt good. It felt good not only to flow with the visual process, but also to recognize and understand the pattern itself – to connect.
This process aligns so well with our hypothesis that identifies three basic steps in actualizing Nature’s the positive benefits – get outside, consciously use your senses to embrace the experience, and connect with the life and other natural objects you are observing by becoming familiar with their characteristics, just like you would with a friend.
But there was more to this story.
After describing our ideas, Neil quickly added, “There’s more. The Bonsai shows us why we enjoy looking at and working with its form in three ways.”
The first, Neil explained, relates to fractals, but more importantly, the ability to recognize patterns. As we evolved, those individuals who were able to recognize patterns (the trail of a deer, the shape of a branch, the change in the expected) had a selective advantage over those who did not. But even more powerful was the behavioral adaptation to “enjoy” recognizing patterns. If you are rewarded mentally when recognizing patterns, you also sought them out. The reason you enjoy much in life is related to this trait, recognizing, rearranging, collecting patterns, be it gardening, cooking, or art. It is likely that the enjoyment of patterns is what is behind many of our most beautiful creations, fun hobbies, and rewarding careers.
The second reason we enjoy Bonsai is that we naturally enjoy miniatures. Small reproductions take on significant appeal in a way that the actual sized version does not. Again, this feeling is probably linked to our past. Being able to size up a situation quickly, by being able to see the whole environment in a single glance provides an evolutionary advantage. With miniatures, we can see not only the entire object, but the detail at the same time. The information rush is emotionally pleasing. No wonder there are a multitude of hobbies associated with miniatures.
The third reason has to do with the trees themselves – the trees. As early primates, those individuals who enjoyed climbing trees, who liked being up there, and had the physical talents and physical traits to live in a 3-D world, had a selective advantage over those who stayed on the ground. We like trees because those who didn’t, didn’t survive as well. This is similar to why the mesmerizing power of a bonfire is a universal human behavioral pattern. Those who weren’t afraid of fire, who were attracted to it, survived much better than those who shied away from the flame. Indeed, it is a reasonable hypothesis that human consciousness was born, or at least made a major leap forward, 750,000 years ago when we first began to bring fire into our camps.
But there was more Neil helped us understand – the Bonsai is reflective of a traditional Japanese world view that allows one to use Nature as a path to better understand, accept, and appreciate life, our lives and the relationship we have with our environment and those we interact with, both human and non-human.
Wabi-sabi – nothing lasts forever, nothing is perfect, nothing is ever finished.