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Want a Neuroenhancer? Try Nature!

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Have you ever noticed that looking at trees feels like a brain massage?

That’s the only way I know how to articulate the immediate release I feel when I’m out in nature.

It’s a total body release.  First, I feel the muscles around my eyes relax.  Then my forehead de-wrinkles. And finally, I feel a softening throughout the rest of my body.

Nerd that I am, I’m fascinated by scientific research that explains my own experiences. I guess I’m a sucker for external validation of my internal processes!

So I perked up today when this article about The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature popped up on twitter.  Here’s the tweet that caught my attention (thanks Gretchen Rubin via Jonathan Fields):

A 45-minute walk in a park boosts cognitive performance; a walk downtown doesn’t.

Cool! I thought. I want to know more about that.  So I read the article, and here’s a brief synopsis (gentle readers will, I’m sure, correct me about anything I’ve over-simplified):

Attention is placed in two different types of ways: (1) It can be “captured” by inherently interesting or important stimuli. This is known as “involuntary attention.” (2) It can be intentionally focused in a specific direction.  This is known as “directed attention.”

Spending time in nature invokes a mild kind of Attention #1.  The grass ripples in the wind.  A hummingbird flutters. The sun glints off of the water. Our attention shifts with ease from place to place.

While the brain is in this mode, the mechanisms that control our “directed attention” (#2) get to lay low for a while.  They’re on break. They get to relaaaaaax, maaaan!

When we go back to work after a nature break, we’re better able to focus because our Directed Attention has had a chance to recharge.  She’s revved up and ready to go again!

Interestingly, walks in the city  don’t allow our Directed Attention to take a break.  Watch out for that car!  Look both ways when you cross the street! Stay safe! There are too many important things to focus on.

But according to this article, even looking at a picture of nature can give our Directed Attention some time off. A simple picture! I am gonna hafta try this and see if it works.

As the authors of the study concluded, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.

I’m committing to giving myself the gift of “simple and brief interactions with nature” on a daily basis.  I bet even a couple of minutes will do the trick! Will you join me?  We’ll all be smarter (and probably happier) because of it.

The 5 Minimum Daily Requirements for Health and Happiness

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I do this thing called InterPlay. It’s changed my life.

Recently I was chatting with co-founder Cynthia Winton Henry, and she rocked my world.  Here’s what she shared with me.

To maximize our health and happiness, there are five things we need to do on a daily basis:

1. Move and Breathe.

Did you know that ten thousand years ago the earliest people walked an average of 12 miles a day? Nuh uh, really? It blows my mind to think about this. Our brains evolved in a context of constant movement!

And yet so many of us spend the better part of our lives (childhood & adulthood) sitting in chairs — to work, eat, think, and even play.

Need I say more?

2. Play with Your Full Voice.

“Raise your hand!” “You’re too loud!” “You can’t sing!”

Early on I learned the importance of  keeping quiet. But the more I kept my voice to myself, the more I held back an important means of self- expression.

Let’s not be silenced any longer, folks! Take a deep breath and let it out with a loud sigh.  Wiggle your voice around and find as many sounds as possible. Sing in public. Stand up and stretch and let yourself groan loudly.

Boldly claim the fullness of your voice, and see how it changes your life!

3. Tell a Story and Have it Witnessed.

Everyone needs to be seen. It’s a basic human requirement about which I blogged recently.  Telling a story about something that happened to you is one of the simplest ways to be seen.

And when that story is received — simply received —  by another person, it feels so gosh darn good.

Luckily, it doesn’t take too long to tell (or hear) a story.  In InterPlay classes, we practice telling stories in 30-second bursts. “Describe how you got here today.” “Give as many details as possible about what you had for breakfast this morning.” It’s pretty amazing what you can learn about another person in 30-seconds.

What details of your life have you shared today? What details have you heard from others?

4. Touch Someone (Physical Contact)

Long ago a friend told me that physical touch in his life stopped when he was twelve years old. His parents stopped hugging him. He didn’t play team sports. Didn’t get in fights. And he didn’t have a girlfriend.

I shared this story with some teenagers at a recent InterPlay workshop.  At the end, I said, “Sometimes I wonder if we place too much importance on the physical touch we get from a lover, simply because we’re not getting enough safe, non-sexual physical contact in our lives.”

Heads nodded somberly; they’re only sixteen, but they got what I was saying.

In InterPlay classes we ask people to place their palm against their partner’s palm and try to push each other across the room. It’s fun and playful, and the touch is reassuring.

In the wise words of AT&T: “Reach out and touch someone!!!”

P.S. If you’ve got a couple extra minutes, check out this playful audio clip about how touch reduces stress.

5. Have Stillness.

The basic laws of inertia tell us that bodies in motion tend to stay in motion.  So when I’m feeling busy, busy, busy, it’s sooooooo hard to stop and find stillness.

Remembering that stillness is a minimum daily requirement is such a gift. I get less annoyed during moments when I have to wait. In line at the grocery store. At the doctor’s office.

Instead, I try to notice that I have an opportunity to be still, and then I try to really have that stillness. Even if it’s just a minute.  It’s hard to do, but totally worth it.

When today can you let yourself have stillness?

So there you have it, folks.  Try these five minimum daily requirements, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to be happier than you were before you gave it a go. Guaranteed! (At least, it seems to be working for me…)

Before today ends, see if you can get your minimum daily requirements in. I’d love to hear how it goes!

Plus: if you think I seem fun, come play with me!! Check out the InterPlay classes I teach in Oakland and San Francisco. Let’s meet our minimum daily requirements for health and happiness — together.

Oh, yeah.  So what the heck is InterPlay, anyway?

Officially speaking, it’s a community arts practice that unlocks the wisdom of the body using improvisational storytelling, movement, vocal play, and stillness.

But really, it’s a way to have fun. To de-stress. To connect.

ProFUNdity in action.