I am a slave to my alarm clock. I hear it and cringe. Work. University. Repeat. But as a boy, I recall campsites along the river bank, hiking up seemingly endless trails and sleeping soundly as silence descended with the last day’s light above the canopy. Exploring and experiencing natural landscapes have always inspired an appreciation for mystery and a love of discovery. But I now live in a world dominated by the internet, video games, and digital devices. Science has a word for this videophilia, which is a tendency to focus on activities that involve electronic media and that don’t take people farther than the couch. This means it has never been easier to be disconnected from nature. But research shows that nature-based recreation yields psychological, social, and physical benefits, especially for young people. Despite the perks, there has been “a pervasive and fundamental shift” away from nature-based activities, according to the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Visits per capita to US National Parks have been on a downward spiral since 1987 (Pergrams 297). Could videophilia in modern society be to blame? With the threat of climate change, the concern is that society places less value on the human experience in natural areas, which could ultimately harm conservation efforts.
Nature provides far more value to our lives than just as a material resource. Simply camping outdoors can help us sleep better, according to research conducted by the Centre for Behaviour and Neurosciences at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands (Kantermann 689). The presence of naturally occurring light and darkness provide fundamental cues for our biological (circadian) clocks, which synchronize our bodily functions to the natural rhythm of the environment. But the constant presence of artificial light and human activity disrupts these clocks. Alarm clocks are quite good at ruining my biological sleep, and when the weekend comes, I sleep deeper and longer. Scientists call this phenomenon “social jetlag.” For university students, social jetlag is a familiar experience. But what is disconcerting is that it correlates with increased smoking, obesity, depression, and cardiovascular problems. Research published in Chronobiology International found that people with misaligned sleep patterns or social jetlag were prone to depression (Levandovski 776). Comparatively, the Department of Integrated Physiology at the University of Colorado found that the natural synchronization of the circadian clock contributes to improved brain performance upon waking up and promotes the release of melatonin – a hormone which causes sleepiness – in the evening (Wright 1556). Spending a week camping outdoors can restore our biological clock, and the benefits would continue even after we have gone back to the couch.
While outdoor recreation often occurs in isolation, no one said it has to be lonely. The outdoors is not only good for the self, but it is also beneficial to social bonds. Research published in the Journal of Leisure Research supports the idea that nature-based recreation is good for family cohesiveness (West 355). This is the result of unique characteristics in nature-based activities, often associated with group struggle and team building. Adventures in nature also isolate groups from their normal social structures, intensifying interactions.
Since fall is now in full swing, this is the perfect time to stop being a slave to an alarm clock. With fewer crowds at campsites, you can make the most of an intimate experience with nature. The cool autumn weather also means fewer bugs and more comfortable eating in the glow of a warm, crackling fire. Sometimes it is easy to be overwhelmed by the nonstop pace of life. I also occasionally need to step back, slow down, and follow the natural pace of the
planet. While science tries to explain and measure the benefits of nature, there will always be something intangible about experiencing it. Something so much more. I hope that never changes.
Kantermann, T. (2013). “Circadian Biology: Sleep-Styles Shaped by Light-Styles.” Current Biology, 23, 689-90. Doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.065.
Levandovski, R., G. Dantas, L. Fernandes, W. Caumo, I. Torres, T. Roenneberg, M. Hidalgo, and K. Allebrandt, (2011). “Depression Scores Associate with Chronotype and Social Jetlag in a Rural Population.” Chronobiology International, 28, 771-78. Doi:10.3109/07420528.2011.602445.
Pergams, O., and P. Zaradic. (2008). “Evidence for a Fundamental and Pervasive Shift away from Nature-based Recreation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105, 295-300. Doi:10.1073/pnas.
West, P., and L. Merriam. (2009). “Outdoor Recreation and Family Cohesiveness: A Research Approach.” Journal of Leisure Research, 41, 351-59. Retrieved from search.proquest.com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/201200554/23C54B
Wright, K., A. Mchill, B. Birks, B. Griffin, T. Rusterholz, and E. Chinoy, (2013). “Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light-dark Cycle.” Current Biology, 23, 1554-58. Doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.039.