Your Brain on Trees:
The TREEmendous Health Benefits of Nature
Let’s talk about the TREEmendous health benefits of nature! Have you noticed that when you step out into nature and all of a sudden you just feel better?
It’s a real thing. Whether you are forest bathing or taking a hike in the wilderness, there is a direct connection between your mental health, your brain, and your environment! Nature can be medicine! We’re going to talk with our guests Chris and Raquel Falco as we dive into the science and healing power of trees.
Men and women, young and old, you know it’s true! But the question becomes: If there are so many lifestyle, self-help, personal growth, mind, and body benefits, how can we make trees and nature a part of our daily lives? Especially if you are living in urban areas, or if your community doesn’t seem to have many options for opting outside! Let’s face it. Trees = Happiness!
Introduction to Chris & Raquel
Chris and Raquel met at a tree conference. Go figure. The guy was talking about sound and music and decay in trees. Little did he know he was also cooking up a romance between the two of them.
Raquel works for the city of Glendora overseeing park maintenance, including taking care of the trees. They are also volunteers for the city council, so they help plant trees. She also does some Spanish education stuff. Chris works at West Coast Arborists with John.
“If Trees Die, We Die”
Chris just read an article about how kids who grow up in green spaces are less obese and do better in general. The science is showing that green spaces, trees being a part of that, have positive impacts on us.
For example, the emerald ash borer is a beetle that has killed over 100 million trees across a major swath of the country. Researchers are doing a dark study that studied the difference between the rate of human death in areas where trees are lost in comparison to areas where trees are not lost. Controlling different variables, people in areas of lost trees died at an increased rate from heart disease and pulmonary diseases. “If trees die, we die.”
The article attributed stress as the primary reason why trees help. Trees reduce our stress level. Forest bathing is going out into the forest and taking the energy in from it. In Japan, they call it shinrinyoku. It’s the act of going out into nature and silencing your mind and experiencing nature in all its glory. When you’re driving, you have to pay voluntary attention, but when you go out into nature, it’s involuntary attention or what they call soft fascination.
One theory for this is the attention restoration theory. There is a lot of convergence on the theme of attention in the world. Social media contributes to that obviously. Research is showing that attention is the X factor in all of this. When you go out into nature, you can immerse yourself in that experience, smelling a branch, feeling the breeze while sitting on the ground. You’re pouring your attention out of yourself.
Researchers found a pattern that when people are in these machines thinking about something, and it’s time to take a break, their brain activity level stays the same. Instead of truly taking a break, it’s thinking about yourself, the narrative you have created. It’s called the default mode network. When you’re not focused, you’ve been evolutionarily programmed to self-reflect. There was an evolutionary purpose to it at one point, but now you’re just thinking about yourself.
Harvard did a survey on people. They would contact people at random points of the day and ask them what they were thinking about. They concluded that the wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The default mode network has utility up to a point, but it turns into rumination and worry. You rerun the same negative loops in your head.
Raquel and Chris are big urban forest bathers. They often go on bike rides in the streets, looking for cool trees. Raquel has a ton of pictures of tree tunnels, which are great for forest bathing.
Once, Raquel found a cool lion’s mane mushroom in this old oak tree on one of the parkways in Glendora. They would cut it out and cook it every year, making pasta and other dishes with their friends. Fun fact: research was done between lion’s manes and rat brains, according to Chris. They took a bunch of rats and gave them chemically induced brain damage. Rats were then divided into two groups. One group was given lion’s mane mushrooms and the other group was given nothing. The group given the lion’s mane was able to solve mazes quicker through regenesis. Their brain damage was resolved quicker from the lion’s mane mushrooms.
A lot of the best mushrooms come from trees. Some of them will deactivate your default mode network (aka psychedelics). Meditation can also help deactivate your default mode network. Our brains are wired to tell ourselves our own story, which is oftentimes negative. Things that pull us out of that loop are healthy, such as trees.
Science shows that people heal faster in hospitals if green is outside their window. Green areas have had less crime. Children who sit by windows with trees outside tend to learn and pay attention better than kids who don’t. People shop more in greener malls. If they know their car is parked under shade, then they will shop longer because they don’t have to worry about their car overheating.
- Lots of parking lots have trees, but they often top them. If you trim trees in the summer, you are starving your trees and creating unpleasant conditions for people in parking lots. You are also destroying the aesthetics of the trees. Topping can also create hazards through creating decay in those trees.
More Green Time, Less Screen Time
There is a green wave that will come to a tipping point on multiple levels of society. You can’t just say trees are good in and of themselves; we need to create a bigger narrative around trees. We have talked about the benefits of trees, but our technologies have some serious problems.
If you’ve seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix—it got 28 million views in one month—it showcases executives from social media companies explaining all the issues of what they created. These platforms are powered by AI, which is derived from massive computers that are housed underground. They are geared toward keeping you on your platform, no matter the information they are providing. These AIs know how to hack our brains. It’s a race for attention. Sugar is so good because evolutionarily it was hard to find, and we love it, but we can’t eat it all day long. These platforms act like sugar all day long. That’s how I feel about a ginkgo biloba.
We need to recognize that our own systems are keeping us tied in and causing us problems. We’re supposed to be tied into nature, but now you’re just inside on a screen all day. We need to pay attention to our attention and what you’re doing with it. It’s mindfulness. You need to understand how and why these platforms are pulling you into rabbit holes. We also need to understand that nature takes us in the opposite direction, and we can find a healthy balance. More green time, less screen time.
Kids these days have their own tablets at developing ages, and they are spending so much time on screens when we used to spend our free time in nature as children. It’s concerning. We need to rebuild our green spaces while also utilizing social media for good. Facebook has a forest on their campus, which is interesting. We should have an app on our phone that tells us how much green time we got today instead of how much screen time we got today.
Chris likes the term “urban forest” as a tree nerd, but he doesn’t think it translates well to the average person. Two opposite words put together, like “jumbo shrimp” or “plastic glass.” “Green space” has a bigger appeal as a phrase because there’s no structure to it. That’s what we want to bring to people’s attention here.
Raquel and Chris recently took a vacation to a bunch of different states. They fell in love with Idaho because they do green space right. Boise had beautiful parks with bike lanes and greenways that connected with cities and other areas. It made you feel like you were in a park the whole time. There are other places that know how to do it. You just have to look to them to figure out how to apply these principles to your own city.
The average person goes through their day probably never thinking about green spaces once, but the green space is still without a doubt impacting them, even if it’s just operating in the background. But now that you know that, you want to pay attention to something you took for granted before. That’s the flip in attention.
Cities have resources for different services. If you tie those into people’s health, a lot more money would go toward planting new trees and maintaining the ones you have. In an urban setting, trees don’t live that long. How can we incentivize folks to utilize their front yards better? You have an opportunity for community service right there. Our friend John talks about treating a tree like it’s a member of your family. The trees at your home should be treated as such, just like your pets. You have to take care of them as such.
Netflix just released this great new documentary about David Attenborough. Programs like this are such great attention boosters on these issues. A great way of broadcasting this. Now is the time to talk about this more.
They added another R to RRR (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) of Refuse. You don’t have to use Starbucks’ plastic cup; take your own refillable cup in there instead. That’s how you’re not collecting the stuff to recycle anyway. Raquel carries her own utensils in her purse. Tiny things like that can make a huge difference.
Use your Screen Time for GOOD!
There is a group of people who live in the Amazon who are intimately connected to their plant life who are showcased in Down to Earth with Zac Efron. Think about all the benefits of a tree. Is it a fruit-producing tree? What kind of wood can you get from the tree? What wildlife enjoys the tree? Are there any medicinal benefits? Then you have an intimate relationship with your immediate environment. I mean, I have lost 50 pounds since I started working here so… clearly there are benefits.
We think of trees as carbon storage. The bench Raquel and Chris are sitting on is made up of 30 board feet of red gum eucalyptus. The average wood has 4.7 pounds of carbon per board foot. Carbon is also stored inside the ocean. David Attenborough talked about how the ocean is at its limit for storing carbon and heat, so we need to plant more trees at the very least to help with that. They are the #1 technology for absorbing carbon out of the air.
All these movements can come together, and we can use screen time for good, seeing an incredible feature on Netflix about this someday. It doesn’t feel urgent for some reason, but it is. The world has to realize this now. Our modern world keeps trying to feed us candy, but we have to take the time to eat broccoli.
Intelligent Land Use
Raquel and Chris made a cool short table out of a slab of oak wood for their horticulture stuff. They also made a work bench out of redwood. Their friend John also just gave them a big slab of black oak from Idyllwild so they can make another big table.
The average person is like, “Trees are cool.” If I planted a tree and my neighbor came up and said, “Thanks,” the green space would flourish. That would make you want to plant trees so much more.
Raquel and Chris are thinking of creating postcards to pass to people who are planting trees that they see on their bike rides. In fact, we even have postcards that could be used for this purpose. Our postcards are actually made of wood scraps. There is so much wood waste out there. There is no system built to make use of that waste. In fact, folks are almost disincentivized to use it because the smaller you cut it up, the easier you grind it, it can turn into mulch. Mulch is a good product that might be the highest-end use. Mulch can retain moisture in the ground and preserve it for trees. It helps keep the soil cool so that the tree’s temperature stays regulated.
The Grass and Trees
Grass and trees are actually competitors in that respect. People will maintain grass instead of the tree. Do not plant grass all the way next to the tree. Lawn mowers can actually cut into the roots of the tree and girdle it, which can be done to prevent disease but also can be bad for the tree.
In suburban California, there are acres of warm season turf. Bare soil doesn’t work. In the Zac Efron docuseries, they talked about how soil is dying. Soil is definitely alive, and moisture plays a role. If you have bare soil, the top can be super dry and falling apart. But if you dig deep, you will see the life. If you don’t cover the soil, it can start to erode and lose microbial life. Soil is also dying because of modern agricultural practices, like heavy chemical use. If you have too much mulch, you will have problems getting water into the ground and air into the soil. All the water will get absorbed into the wood.
Land as an important resource
Chris thinks landscaping is a passe term. It’s really land use. Landscaping is like an outdoor janitorial service. Land is an important resource. We are pushing harder on the ecosystems with all the people we have. If Chris landscaped his front yard, that means he takes care of it so it looks nice. But how are you really using your land? It’s intelligent land use. You have your soil, put down mulch, put down efficient irrigation, and choose what you plant carefully. Do you want a shade tree? Do you want fruit? Be specific about your materials. You are designing your environment with intelligence. How do you get people interested in intelligent land use? When does it become cool to kick ass in your plant life? When does it become cool to use solar panels?
All the richest areas have tons of trees. It’s the luxury effect. The poorer areas don’t have trees. How do we fix this? Education. Give them the opportunities to plant trees through grants and other cool things. Elon Musk gave $1 million for trees, so that’s cool.
When people come into our room here, sometimes they don’t even know that lumber comes from trees. People are learning. It’s plant-based lumber…
The health benefits for green spaces are piling up. You can’t keep up with this research. In general, you can’t keep up with the amount of research. There are just so many things. You know, we didn’t always know exercise was good for us. But the research kept flying in to the point where it became common knowledge that the benefits of exercise are abundant. Now we’re on this green wave; it’s another new requirement. Korea and Japan legitimately have medical prescriptions to go forest bathing. They have dedicated lands toward it and take it quite seriously.
That’s their dream: to go see all these trees. They have been wanting to go to the Engelmann oak grove in southern California, somewhere by Temecula. In addition to going to Australia, Korea, Japan, etc. They got married in the redwoods in California, and they saw some beautiful trees in Kauai.
- I also want to go see this type of camphor in Japan that do what’s called camphor shining, meaning they don’t grow into each other. It looks super cool. There’s also this great pine in Australia that I want to see.
- Fractals also are super cool. They evolved with us. When we see them, they have an impact. Like the Romanesco, for example.
If Raquel was stuck on a desert island, the five seeds she would take with her are:
- Tomatoes – she wants the self-seed ones
If Chris was stuck on a desert island, the five seeds she would take with her are:
- Valencia oranges – once it’s ready to eat, it can store itself on a tree for eight months
- Potatoes or yucca – you gotta have a base starch
- Hemp seed
- Eucalyptus – for firewood or building material
- Some kind of grain like brown rice – you can make flour in order to make bread and pizza
If John was stuck on a desert island, the five seeds she would take with her are:
- Valencia orange
- Almond tree – you can make almond flour, and almond firewood is great
- Citrus limes – they’re spiky and can be used as a deterrent
- Southern magnolia – the foliage works as an alternative to toilet paper…
On a final note, hack people, don’t hack trees. Push the like button in nature and incentivize those who are planting trees to plant more trees.
Stay Dusty, Friends!