As a society, we lost a lot of things when we willingly signed our livelihoods away to the social contract of staying indoors during quarantine.
But we might lose a lot more if ‘physical-distancing’ measures keep us inside, away from the outdoors, and glued to our computer screens for school or work.
“People didn't evolve in front of a computer screen. So the computer screen has some problems, because what it does is it basically tricks our mind in a lot of ways, in what's often times called ‘mismatch’ and hijacks our mind,” said psychologist Stephen Colarelli.
In 2016, Colarelli and other researchers from Central Michigan University investigated the effects of natural elements and sunlight in the workplace on employee mental health and wellbeing. The researchers surveyed over 400 respondents from both India and the U.S. with a set of eight questions that assessed each respondents’ office environment in relation to sunlight and natural element exposure.
Questions included, “Overall, I am satisfied with the amount of sunlight exposure I get at work,” and “I make time to go outdoors and be in the sun while I am at work.”
As workplaces and education in 2020 transition to online platforms and states declare lock-down measures, exposure to nature and sun are harder to fit into daily routines.
The effects of carving out time to spend outdoors or in the presence of natural representations are nestled within each other; the study found that exposure to natural elements decreases depression and anxiety and increases the attentional capacity of employees in the workplace. As a result, psychological well-being is increased and more emphasis is placed on future goals and ambitions, which was linked to an overall healthier lifestyle.
The brain, just like any other muscle in our bodies, gets fatigued after it is directed to mental tasks (such as those encountered in work environments) for long periods of time. After such extensive and directed focus, it needs time to recuperate to function effectively, according to the study.
What the brain really desires is to hark back to its days when humans roamed the Earth as hunter-gatherers and found solace in trees, mountains, and soil.
“Despite the fact that evolution has continued to work on us a bit we are still the same bipedal hominids that we were back many, many thousands of years ago to a very substantial degree,” said Dr. Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
For work environments in urban areas, it can be harder to find rolling hills and scenes of rural landscapes. The good news? Humans do not necessarily need to go outside to get their nature fix.
The study found that photographs of landscapes (something as mundane as a picture of mountains on a desktop) has equally calming effects comparable to a window view of nature. When focusing on these natural scenes, the basal ganglia, or the section of the brain that is associated with pleasure, is activated all the same.
“It's tricking your mind. It's making your mind think that you are in nature. And basically what natural images do is—it relaxes your mind,” Colarelli said. “Images of nature tend to require indirect attention. And that tends to give your mind a break because the elements don't require direct attention, and they basically inspire a degree of fascination and relaxation, generally.”
Wielding an even stronger influence on mental health and general well-being is sunlight and, by proxy, good old vitamin D. According to Barnard, sunlight is not only beneficial to bone health by boosting calcium absorption but increased production can also lower cancer risks.
In addition, direct and indirect exposure to the sun can elevate mood and increase alertness. Sunlight also affects our sleep cycle when sun rays reach the retinas of our eyes and influence responses in the brain.
“Exposure to sunlight triggers the brain to release serotonin. And serotonin has a couple of effects. One is that it helps you sleep. And the other is related—it can affect your mood,” Barnard said.
Lack of sunlight not only negatively affects how we feel about ourselves and the organizations we work for—it also has adverse effects on how we fuel our bodies. By taking sunlight out of daily routines, we only point ourselves in the direction toward processed foods.
“It’s not a surprise that we not only have physical reactions to it, such as weight gain or higher cholesterol or diabetes, we also have mental reactions to it as well, where we can have anxiety and we can have depression. ” Barnard said. “It comes really from feeling that our lives are no longer under our control."