Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


(PHOTO: EUGENE SERGEEV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: EUGENE SERGEEV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Is Our Disconnect From Nature a Disorder?

• April 05, 2013 • 9:33 AM

(PHOTO: EUGENE SERGEEV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

It’s not in the DSM, but Richard Louv argues that being divorced from nature is a sort of disorder. More and more research backs him up.

Somewhere during the American experience, between Teddy Roosevelt and color TV, being outdoors and maybe even working up a sweat started to lose its universal appeal. There remain those who fetishize the outdoors, from Ted Nugent to REI shoppers, and the urge to connect with nature never vanished. But as Americans became more urban and more cocooned in their cars and air conditioning, the values of nature were honored more by their absence than in their activities.

The price of this disconnect is usually tallied via our bodies, with a simple equation that a lack of outdoor activity must surely be connected with the nation’s growing waistline and obesity-related maladies like diabetes. There’s an always-growing corpus of academic work that does make that correlation, and even causation, explicit. Last month, for example, a policy brief from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research noted that in California as a whole, about a third as many kids who live near parks get in an hour of physical activity a day (the recommended daily threshold) at least five times a week compared to kids who can’t get to a park easily.

But increasingly, researchers are examining the impact of the natural world on our minds. (At Pacific Standard, for example, we’ve reported on the benefits of biophilic design, how nature makes us nicer or improves our attention span, the rise of attention restoration theory, or even how just looking at a picture of the outdoors can blunt the harsh edges of stress.)

Last week, to cite one well-publicized recent study, Scottish researchers outfitted pedestrians with mobile electroencephalographs and set them loose for 25-minute strolls in Edinburgh. Those whose paths wended through green spaces “showed evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher meditation” based on EEG readings, the academics wrote, adding a quantitative page to the annals of similar qualitative “restorative literature.”

These recent works add firepower to the longstanding cannonade of writer Richard Louv, who summarized the disconnect as “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 bestseller, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. That book and his 2011 volume, The Nature Principle, are both study-filled dialectics on why it’s important to step outside much more frequently.

Louv, who described himself as an “advocacy journalist” (he co-founded the Children & Nature Network) when we spoke last year, acknowledges that his rubric of “nature-deficit disorder” is a two-edged sword, both making the idea accessible and yet turning it into a new-agey pathology at the same time. But use the word “disorder” and it conjures the DSM and pharmaceuticals and longitudinal studies and, well, rigorous vetting.

Even people who might agree that there is a “deficit” might balk over “disorder.” When the U.K. National Trust invoked Louv’s “useful shorthand” repeatedly in a 28-page call to arms to “reverse this trend towards a sedentary, indoor childhood,” journalist Aleks Krotoski wondered if medicalizing the issue wasn’t just a sly way to commercialize it:

My problem is with the implied consequences of this ‘disorder,’ presented in a one-sided way and aimed at raising awareness among an already concerned demographic in the hope that they will reach deep into their pockets and donate their support to an institution that is promoting what is, as many accept, commonsense.

Louv acknowledges both strands—raising awareness and common sense—in his decision to use the phrase. When Last Child was published, ”I said very clearly, this is not a known medical diagnosis. This is, though, a way to look at this issue in a way that we can understand.  And when I say that phrase people know exactly what it is, parents know what it is. I don’t have to write a long white paper.”

The decision to spotlight the disorder, which Louv said he initially resisted as making his book a bumper sticker—“I was an investigative journalist and all”—has paid dividends. Saying he’d endorse any phrase that keeps people’s attention on this issue, “I know that this one, to my surprise, has worked and much of that point/counter-point, much of that debate, might not be happening without that phrase in the first place.”

But maybe a little medicalization might be in order. As he’s told a gathering of the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, “If you think that writing a tongue-in-cheek, or an actually serious, prescription to ‘go outside and have some exercise,’ would do some good, then please do it.”

WHILE SOME MIGHT BRIDLE at the quasi-science of nature-deficit disorder or quail at cherry-picking research, many putative Aldo Leopolds have traded in what might charitably be called mysticism over the years. His evidence-based approach is necessary tonic, Louv says, in an arena he calls “terribly understudied.” The historic dearth of such scholarship, he believes, “says a lot about the priorities of science:” Since nature studies are unlikely to produce a profitable product, they get short shrift.

Of late, the last dozen years of so, Louv says he’s seen an increasing number of researchers and policy wonks studying humans and nature. Still, he finds many in academe have a “blind spot” about how natural environments might shape behavior and brain architecture, pointing out how many animal studies in medicine and psychology take place in unnatural environments for the animals, which may or may not stress out the beasts and affect the study outcomes.

Some of the nature research that does take place is revelatory, but much of it reinforces the maternal injunction to go outside and play; it’s good for you.

“There are no new ideas, really,” Louv suggests, but there is new evidence. Citing the spate of park building in the early 1900s, he notes, “They didn’t have a lot of science to back up the idea that parks were good for people and that nature, [even] urban nature, was restorative. Those parks, including Central Park, were supported by industrialists who wanted healthier and more productive workers. So again this isn’t new knowledge. … In a sense, it’s lost information, forgotten information, whether it’s urban design or how families conduct themselves.”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 2 • 9:00 AM

For Memory, Curiosity Is Its Own Reward

A new study suggests a neural link between curiosity, motivation, and memory.


October 2 • 8:00 AM

Can Prisons Predict Which Inmates Will Try to Escape?

And what can they do to prevent it?


October 2 • 6:00 AM

How Do We Know Our Environmental Laws Are Working?

Ask a great white shark.


October 2 • 5:00 AM

Give Us This Day Our Daily Brands

Researchers find identifying with brand-name products reduces religiosity.


October 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Can’t Anyone Break the Women’s Marathon Record?

Paula Radcliffe set the world record in 2003. Since then? No one’s come within three minutes of her mark.


October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


Follow us


For Memory, Curiosity Is Its Own Reward

A new study suggests a neural link between curiosity, motivation, and memory.

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.