Interview: Florence Williams on How Nature Calms the Brain

July 17, 2019

Is nature like a miracle cure? In The Three Day Effect: How Nature Calms Your Brain, a binge-worthy six-part Audible Original series, journalist (and friend of Ned) Florence Williams and a team of researchers guide former war veterans, sex trafficking survivors, and even a self proclaimed nature hater on three-day excursions into the wild to scientifically prove how nature can make us happier, healthier, and more creative.

The 3-Day Effect: DOWNLOAD ON AUDIBLE


Interview with Florence Williams:  

Q: Where and when did you develop your love for the outdoors?


I grew up in New York City. My parents were divorced, and every summer my father took me on long wilderness vacations to Canada or out West. From an early age, I learned that forests and rivers and big landscapes provided fun and excitement, as well as peace and reflection. As a teenager, I sought out pockets of green in the city. I spent tons of time in city parks, biking, running and hanging out with friends. We felt like we owned the parks, which is how city parks should make us feel.

Q: An extended excursion into nature is a privilege that many people living in cities don’t often have access to. How can civil and state governments adapt existing urban environments to enhance them, and make them more nature friendly? 


That’s a really important question as we become an ever more urban species. I was surprised to learn that most large cities in the U.S. have pretty decent park and natural resources. The problem is making them accessible to everyone, and then reducing the hurdles to using them. These include cultural hurdles, perceptions of safety, and finding plain old time. I’d love to see schools and civic institutions promote programs that help urban populations feel more comfortable in nature from an early age. The more we use the parks, the safer they’ll feel, both physically and culturally. 


Q: You say that “A 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology.” Have you found that different natural environments yield different physiological and psychological benefits? 


Definitely. Humans are primed to love the natural world, but we still have to cultivate it, and cultivate it early. Because of how and where we do this, I think there’s a lot of variation in what people respond to emotionally. For some, it’s the ocean. For others, the ocean freaks them out and it’s a sunset over a city skyline. Because of where I grew up, my heart starts to sing when I enter Central Park. I also love the desert, and a big river rolling through it. Think about where you were happiest outside as a child, and chances are you feel joy in landscapes that are similar.

Q: How can one balance a modern, digital life with a life that’s also connected to the natural world? 


With increasing difficulty! We are all distracted and time crunched. We work longer hours and spend dramatically more time inside.  I think the first step is to just notice this, and then it may begin to naturally self-correct. Beyond that, parents need to foster the connection to nature in their children’s lives so that it will always be there on some level. In the same way as we are coming to value exercise as part of a healthy daily routine, I think we will also come to appreciate time in nature as a critical part of the mix that keeps us going. It’s not a luxury; it’s essential to who we are and who we want to be. Because it’s joyful, spending time outside, in whatever way you love, doesn’t feel like a chore.


Q: Is there an activity that you do that makes you feel particularly connected to nature?


My own weird eccentric habit is that I crumble leaves in my hand as I walk, even in the city, and take in the scents. I’ve always done it, but after writing this book I understand better the power of these substances in the trees and shrubs, and sometimes I can imagine them boosting my immune system and lightening my mood. I feel like I’ve discovered that trees have a secret superpower.


Florence Williams is author of The Nature Fix and Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. She also is a contributing editor at Outside and freelance writes for New York Times, New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, The New York Review of Books, Slate, Mother Jones, and others.

Photograph Courtesy: Sue Barr on Florence Williams

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