The Path to Health Lies in Nature by Sharen McDonald

I have a treat for readers today. My great friend and excellent thinker and writer, Sharen McDonald of Pointe Claire in Quebec has agreed to do a guest blog on Biophilia. This is an excerpt from a lecture Sharen gave at McGill last week.

How often do we exclaim over a magnificent sunset? Why do we request rooms with “an ocean view” on seaside holidays? What causes us to inhale with deep satisfaction upon entering a forest of pine trees? In these incidences and many more, we invariably derive deep comfort from all our senses. During the latter part of the 20th century psychoanalyst Erich Fromm used the term ‘biophilia’ to describe “the passionate love of life and all that is alive.” Biologist E.O. Wilson later popularized the term with the belief that nature nurtures and calms us.

A century earlier, Frederick Law Olmsted, founder of American landscape architecture and designer of Central Park, presciently believed in the power of nature to refresh our minds, and thus restore our entire body to harmony and health. Olmsted realized that increasing urbanization would become problematic for humans unless parks were introduced to cityscapes. Bit by bit, technology did affect our innate bond with nature through buildings and vehicles that were centrally-heated or air-conditioned depending on the season.

In the 1980s, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan proposed their Attention Restorative Theory, noting that viewing nature combatted mental fatigue and psychological distress. In 1984, Roger Ulrich’s “View through a Window” post-op study was hailed as “groundbreaking.” Despite this, and his similar 1993 study in Uppsala, Sweden, few meaningful changes were introduced to hospital design until recently. Alas, windowless rooms existed still.

Now is the time for innovation. Firms such as Human Spaces are promoting biophilic design in workplaces. The impact on hospital settings is immense, witness the Olson Family Garden at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri. Unsurprisingly, healing gardens benefit not only patients and their families, but also significantly reduce stress-related fatigue for staff. Maggie’s Centres for cancer patients and their families, first introduced in the U.K. in the 1990s, are now popping up across the world. Skylights of blue skies with fluffy clouds are now found in elevator ceilings in The Montreal General Hospital and elsewhere. The City Tree Project offers constructions of moss, each of which may remove pollutants from urban air as effectively as the planting of 275 trees.

Countries and cities worldwide are implementing biophilic strategies to encourage the maintenance of health as well its restoration. In Japan, shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) achieves notable positive health results, not only reducing cortisol levels and the harmful effects of other stress indicators, but also significantly increasing the production of NKC (Natural Killer Cells). (The Nature Fix – Florence Williams) Currently, there are 48 Forest-Therapy Trails in Japan with plans to double this number in a decade. At Alnarp, Sweden, the world’s largest rehabilitation garden offers nature-based treatment for stress-related mental exhaustion. At Chungbuk University in South Korea, one can pursue a degree in forest healing. Saneum Healing Forest is one of 37 such forests in that country. In Singapore’s Changi Airport, you can visit a butterfly garden or nature trail, and their hospital’s ICU was designed with windows 6 feet in height so that every patient may view trees. Finland and Scotland are also on the list of countries making positive strides towards better health through biophilia.

Heading towards the future, there is legitimate concern for children in the fast-paced, stress-inducing 21st century world of technology. Forest kindergartens (Waldkindergartens), so popular in Germany, are now being introduced in other parts of the world. We can look to Chippewa Nature Center’s Pre-School in Michigan, Jaureguiberry Primary Nature School near Montivedeo, Uruguay, and the Hudson Forest School in Hudson, Quebec. These initiatives are encouraging signs of progress, reconnecting young people with nature and establishing a lifelong bond that will enhance their health and their lives.

Irish-Canadian medical biochemist and botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, notes, “For every breath you take, thank a tree.” Outside we go!

Developing a Culture of Innovation

    I’ve been thinking a lot about innovation – the concept has crossed my desk from several different directions recently. I always take notice when I see something several times in short succession from variable sources. It usually means something is moving away from the edges and hitting the mainstream. I like to think of the application to healthcare-which is in need of significant innovation. A few interesting definitions of innovation (which can be a vague over-used term) are emerging from different sources.

    Innovators are people who apply new and original ideas and methods to solve existing and potential issues and problems. Using creative thinking and idea development, innovators are willing and prepared to embark on an initiative that will advance their profession, organization, business, and/or goal. Turning their ideas into action, they play a key role in driving something forward (adapted from Donner and Wheeler).

    An HBR article on Twitter today by Soren Kaplan provided some further insights. Innovation he says can be categorized into 3 different types: incremental (small tweaks that advance the core business), evolutionary (changes that evolve with other changes), and disruptive (defined as an innovation that creates a new market and value network, eventually disrupting an existing market and value network, and often displacing established leading market firms, products, and relationships). A lot has been written in recent years about disruption and disruptive innovations (see Christensen HBS).

    Most organizations today want more innovation. They want employees to be focused on how things could be done more efficiently, smoothly and with more positive outcomes. The highly competitive environment demands this kind of thinking and action. Organizations need people who will find a problem, create an innovative solution, evaluate its functionality and scale it up. Often what stands in the way of more innovation is organizational culture, known to be one of the areas that are hardest to change. Strategies proposed by Kaplan are: embedding innovation in structures and processes across the organization, getting people in all roles and levels involved, training and development in innovative and design thinking, ensuring that good ideas get traction and are widely publicized, and supporting a few key leaders to effectively champion the ideas and keep up the momentum. Many people believe there are no bad ideas; what counts are the early ideas.

About Fractals

I have been cottaging for a couple of weeks with our family. I’m really enjoying the ease of summer, the sunny mornings where all the wet towels (which spend the night in the screened porch) are hung outside to dry and freshen up in the sun before the day’s events. Ah the sun – how would we ever manage without it!

I’m nurturing an interest in fractals, trying to understand them better, and see them more readily both in nature and eventually elsewhere in the built environment. I take my paddleboard out in the early mornings to explore the trees along the banks where the fractals are numerous and diverse – once you develop the eye for them. My interest in fractals stems from a broader interest in complex adaptive systems, and how an understanding of CAS can help us to better understand and adapt to changes in our organizational structures and activities, our relationships, even the ups and downs of family life.

There are many interesting definitions, and excellent photographs, of fractals on the web. I’ve tried in this post to pull out some of the simplest, most informative and easy to understand ones – so that I can find them more readily. Continue reading “About Fractals”