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E.O. Wilson explains why parks and nature are really good for your brain

Biologist, naturalist and writer E.O. (Ed) Wilson in his Harvard office in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. (Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In recent years, a growing body of research has documented the psychological and even health benefits of spending time in natural settings, such as forests or parks. This research has shown that people who live in urban areas that feature more trees have better physical health, that nature walks decrease a tendency towards harmful mental “rumination” and much more.

None of which comes as a surprise to E.O. Wilson, the famed Harvard biologist and conservationist known for his influential ideas about evolution, the “consilience” of human knowledge and much more. In fact, you might say that the recent research amounts to a modern reaffirmation of Wilson’s more than 30-year-old idea of “biophilia,” which he described in an eponymous 1984 book as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes,” including both living organisms and the environments they occupy.

Recently I had the privilege of speaking with Wilson while he was in Washington, D.C., for the 125th anniversary celebration of Rock Creek Park, organized by the the Rock Creek Conservancy, which aims to protect and preserve the park where Wilson, as a child, collected butterflies and ants. He now sits on a Green Ribbon Panel of advisers to the Conservancy on the park’s future, and wants to see a full biological survey of all the species it contains, and a combined future for the park as a hub for both research and also education for children.

“That’s what Rock Creek Park has: Real nature,” Wilson told me. “Original forests. It’s a little beat up but it’s the real thing.”

In the interview, though, I wasn’t focused as much on the Park’s resident biology as on how visiting it might affect our own. So I asked Wilson about the recent surge of attention to “biophilia,” particularly in a human health and wellness context — and why this older idea’s moment seems to have only arrived now.

“It was difficult, at a time 50 years ago shall we say, when it was widely believed in the social sciences that humans really were so different from everything else, all other life forms, that what really mattered was developing the perfect political systems that suited us,” Wilson answered. He continued:

Now we’ve come all the way around and are beginning, especially through studies in brain science, and psychology, including social psychology, and archaeology and biology, we’re coming to realize that there’s something a lot more complicated and deep and wondrous in the development of the human mind, than what we had imagined even. So there is a new trend and biophilia is part of that, because we know that all other animals — mobile animals, that are able to move around — are programmed to go to the right environment. They do it with no training whatsoever or anything. They just know exactly where to go and what to do when they get there. Why should human beings not have at least a strong residue of those environments in which we evolved? And those are natural environments, we originated in wildlands with certain characteristics.

In other words, Wilson believes that there is an innate tendency to want, as a human, to be in certain types of natural environments — particularly, he says, those that mimic African savannahs where we evolved. “People say, ‘I go there and in a short while, I feel somehow completely at home,’ ” Wilson says of traveling to the savannah.

Needless to say, Wilson also fully agrees with the modern research suggesting that it’s good for our health and well-being to spend time in such places — a finding that has large implications for the global trend towards urbanism, city planning, and much more.

“It’s so important to take an increasingly urbanized population into wildlands,” Wilson says.

As for the science showing that this is good for you? “When people state the common belief that being in nature relaxes them, that it helps them recover from stress and tragedy, that it’s a healing process to be in nature,  we now know there’s a solid basis for that,” Wilson says. “The research has been done and it is true that it’s good for the human mind to be able to live and experience in really natural situations.”

But it’s one thing to say that the research is valid — or even that we evolved to have an affinity for nature — and quite another to explain why people actually derive health and psychological benefits from being in these environments. So I asked Wilson what he thought about the mechanism by which these environments relax, rejuvenate and restore people.

His answer was simple — but pretty sweeping at the same time.

“Instinctively, without understanding what’s happening, they know that in certain wild environments, they have come home,” Wilson said.

The idea that the natural world is “home” leads quickly to concerns about conserving it, and here, Wilson has recently articulated an idea that’s growing in influence — the idea that we should set aside fully half of the Earth’s land surface, as well as 70 percent of the global ocean, in the form of nature preserves.

“I’ve been astonished at the response I got,” Wilson says, after suggesting this idea in a conference lecture earlier this year. He will make the case more fully in a book slated to come out in early 2016.

But the gist of the argument, in Wilson’s words, is this:

We know that we have increased the extinction rate on the order of — the nearest power of ten — to 1,000 times the species extinction rate from when before humans came. And we now know that all of the conservation efforts in the world have together stopped the fading away, the decline to extinction, of only one fifth, 20 percent of the protected species, the species that are listed as endangered. And we know that something pretty big has to happen that’s the equivalent, in the living world, of the threshold, the critical 2 degrees Celsius line that we’re about to cross in terms of temperature change. So we have the same sort of thing in the living world. … And when I gave the solution, instead of dismissing me immediately as a crank, I’ve had a lot of people think that’s a good idea. And that is, the ‘half Earth’ solution. That is, set aside half of the Earth’s surface to natural reserves.

In the oceans, Wilson argues, this would actually replenish coastal fisheries that we rely on for food. On land, the idea would surely be a struggle, but it is certainly buoyed by research suggesting that there are massive economic benefits to creating natural protected areas, which currently draw in 8 billion people annually across the globe and generate $ 600 billion in revenue, according to recent research.

But that’s not Wilson’s chief argument — he thinks that preserving half the Earth is simply the amount needed to bring the extinction rate down from the level to which we’ve elevated it.

I asked Wilson one more thing in our interview — about his assessment of a famous man who, among other things, definitely thinks we need more parks in cities, like Rock Creek Park in D.C. Namely, Pope Francis, who is nowadays the world’s top environmentalist.

The reason Francis is so influential, Wilson said, is that “he has that correct sense that humanity is not an entity and a force that’s risen above nature. We’re part of nature. And that’s what the scientists and major conservation thinkers have been saying for generations. Now to hear it from the pope, that we are part of these great systems, and we need to protect them, is very important.”

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