Heidi’s Syndrome or Nature-Deficit Disorder

Heidi’s Syndrome is known also as ‘nature-deficit disorder’; a term coined by an American author and activist Richard Louv to describe “the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years.”  While it is not a formal diagnosis, it reflects a medical jargon that is weaving its way to describe things parents knew since forever, kids are happier when they spend some time outside and less so when they’ve been indoors too much.

But why Heidi’s Syndrome? For those who didn’t grow up with the company of a young girl from the Swiss Alps, this analogy means nothing. Heidi is a character from a children’s book by Johanna Spyri written in 1880, later turned into various cartoons and movies, such as the classic one with Shirley Temple (1937). Heidi is a little girl who leads an idyllic life in the valleys of Swiss Alps, surrounded by the mountains and very much in contact with nature. However, as an orphan, she then moves to the city of Frankfurt to join her aunt who works there. And this is where things start to go not so well for Heidi and she seems a shadow of a girl she was in the mountain village, depressed and longing for the lush pastures and her home village (and of course the people she loves most). Also, when Klara, a wheelchair-bound little girl Heidi befriends in Frankfurt spends the summer in Heidi’s village, she almost miraculously gets stronger and starts walking again. The story paints a curious dichotomy of urban setting being depressing and crippling and rural setting being healing and joyful.

So what have we learned since Heidi’s times? Researchers are still investigating just how exactly our lack of contact with nature affects our health, both physical and mental and the results are scary on the one hand, but hopeful on the other. When it comes to children, research suggests they spend about only half the time outside in comparison to their parents, anywhere from 7 to only 4 hours a week (Francis 2018). This results in more child obesity, mental illnesses such as depression, lower concentration and learning abilities, lack of social skills, among others, like for instance short-sightedness (Williams 2018, p. 6). And while before it seemed natural that children spent their time outside, nowadays both parents and children need a little push and encouragement to actually get outside and play.

But of course, it’s not only a kid-related issue. We all need to get some ‘vitamin N’, aka spend time in nature. We should think about it as recharging our body and mind’s internal batteries, but also as unplugging from social media and the hustle of everyday life. The effects of an hour’s walk in the woods, while practicing mindfulness and taking in the landscape, can last about a month! This means lower blood pressure, better mood and sleep, and better productivity at work (Li 2018). For children, spending about 3 hours a day outdoors is thought to be optimal for their overall development. What is even more encouraging is that growing up being surrounded by nature protects children long-term and makes them more resilient to mental illness as adults (Engemannet al. 2019).

As Louv rightly points out, even though the biophilia hypothesis is based on our biological needs, our yearning to be one with nature is also a spiritual one (Louv 2016). Nowadays, as the collective awareness about the benefits of reconnecting with nature is on the rise, we can see more research and literature on the topic. The year 2019 has already been marked by another young girl, this time an activist for the planet Earth, Greta Thunberg. There are also many more outdoor kindergartens, where children spend the entire day outside, in all weather. We are also seeing more organisations that promote and educate parents, children, and other 'stakeholders' in the importance of being in touch with nature in childhood and beyond, like the #nochildleftinside movement that mirrors the US national 'No Child Left Behind' Act or local NGOs like Kraków-based  'Dzieci w Naturę'. The movement of forest bathing or the Japanese art of ‘shinrin-yoku’ is also getting more attention from the general public. All in all, for those searching for the antidote for the ills of indoor-itis and Heidi’s Syndrome, all it takes is getting out of the house and into nature every, and that means EVERY, SINGLE, day.

Louv recalls an old Jewish story that builds on the idea of spending time in nature being a time for our senses and also for our souls: “The child of a certain rabbi used to wander in the woods. At first his father let him wander, but over time he became concerned.” One day, he said to his son, ‘“You know, I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. I wonder why you go there?’ The boy answered, ‘I go there to find God.’ ‘That is a very good thing,’ the father replied gently. ‘I am glad you are searching for God. But, my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?’ ‘Yes,’ the boy answered, ‘but I’m not.’” Perhaps it is a bit of an overstatement, but really, taking our children outside can literarily change their little worlds and the future of our planet, because if we let children into the forest (or a meadow or a park for that matter), they will become adults who will protect it (Li 2018).

P.S. If you’re curious how Heidi’s story ends, it is a happy ending as she gets to be close to her grandfather and nature back in the Alps.


Aarhus University (2018) Being surrounded by green space in childhood may improve mental health of adults, [press release], 28 Feb, available:

Francis, G. (2018) “Kids spend just ONE HOUR a day outdoors but two hours staring at screen”, The Mirror, 15 Jul, available:

Engemann,K. Bøcker Pedersen, C., Arge, L., Tsirogiannis, C., Mortensen, P.B, and Svenning, J-S. (2019) “Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood”, PNAS, 116 (11), 5188-5193. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1807504116

Li, Qing (2018) Shinrin-yoku. The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing, London: Penguin Random House.

Louv, R. (2009) No More "Nature-Deficit Disorder",Psychology Today(online), 28 Jan, available:

Louv, R. (2016) ‘Vitamin N for the soul’, Tikkun, 31(4): 58-61.

Williams, F. (2017) The Nature Fix, New York: Norton &  Co.

Environmental Ambassadors

Neuromyths in education

If you’ve ever played the Chinese whispers game, you know it that the original message gets distorted by the time it reaches the final player with often hilarious effects. However, when it comes to research and neuroscience, the result of passing on information through various persons may not be as funny and innocent as an all-time-favourite game. Neuromyths are already gaining their way into different disciplines such as education and unfortunately doing quite well among teachers, as recent research suggests.

Over a decade ago, the OECD published a report about the importance of breakthroughs in brain science informing other disciplines, such as education (OECD 2002). The report also identified the danger of spread of misbeliefs about neuroscience and its relevance in education, which they called ‘neuromyths’ and defined as “a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading, or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research in education and other contexts”. Since then, international studies have confirmed that many teachers actually believe in these neuromyths and suggested that a red flag is to be raised to stop this trend.

In a series of studies that included several European countries (UK, Holland and Spain) teachers were asked about their knowledge of the brain, their preferred sources of neuro knowledge and tried to identify the most common neuromyths. (Articles to both studies reporting results are open access – see Reference list where you'll also find the Latin American part of this study). The results showed that teachers actually care a whole lot about their practice as between 95% and 98% of teachers were interested in the brain and its role on learning and considered scientific knowledge about the brain very important for their teaching practice. However, only 7% stated they read primary scientific journals, as the rest read popular magazines about science or education or used internet pseudoscientific sources (Ferrero et al. 2016). Interestingly, those that read the actual scientific journals were in fact those which later identified best neuromyths amongst other neuro facts. However, having read educational magazines actually increased the belief in neuromyths. These findings suggest that teachers who are enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts.

Overall, teachers agreed with 49% of the statements promoting myths indicating that they believed them to be true in the UK/Holland study, and from a total of 12 neuromyths presented, five were believed by more than 50% of the educators in the Spanish sample. The most prevalent neuromyths were

  1.  “Environments that are rich in stimulus improve the brains of pre-school children.”
  2. “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.”, and
  3. “Exercises that rehearse coordination of motor-perception skills can improve literacy skills”.

In contrast, the most successfully identified neuromyths (marked as ‘false’ by the teachers) were

  1. “Children must acquire their native language before a second language is learned.”
  2.  “Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education.”, and
  3. “If students do not drink sufficient amounts of water their brains shrink.” (Ferrero et al. 2016).

The fact that teachers who are most interested in brain research are also more susceptible to neuromyths is rather troublesome, since it may misguide their educational practice. The difficulty in differentiating between correct and incorrect information is a clash between the eagerness to implement their knowledge about the brain in educational practice and a lack of expertise in neuroscience. Experiments have shown that people with some neuroscientific knowledge (having done a short neuroscience course) were fooled by neuroscientific explanations in the same way as laypeople. Only neuroscience experts (having a degree in cognitive neuroscience or related areas) were able to correctly identify when the neuroscientific explanations were irrelevant to the actual core of the findings. Thus, the level of knowledge of the teachers in the aforementioned studies was not sufficient to protect them against the general credibility of neuroscience findings. “When teachers are eager to implement neuroscientific findings, but lack expertise in neuroscience and seek quick and easy solutions, they may fail to recognize misconceptions” (Weisberg 2007 in Dekker et al. 2012.).

Another issue worth mentioning is the commercial value of buzz-terms that pertain to neuroscience. The UK sample of teachers, for instance, showed stronger belief in some myths probably due to the proliferation of commercialised education ‘brain-based’ programmes. Those methods are sold under the vague idea of enhancing education thanks to neuroscience, such as Brain Gym or the VAK approach (visual, auditive or kinesthetic learning styles), but lack robust, scientific backing. Spain is seeing similar trend of new brain science programmes being introduced in schools (albeit more slowly).

Let us not forget, however, that teachers are not the only ones who can be easily fooled. Research has shown that people are actually more likely to believe research findings when they are accompanied by brain images (like this image below) and neuroscience explanations, regardless of their scientific correctness (Weisberg et al., 2007in Dekker et al.2012). “Weisberg found that the public’s perception of a poor explanation became more positive when neuroscience was included, even though the neuroscience was irrelevant. This may lead to misjudgements of scientific evidence.”

The teachers in the studies mentioned here were genuinely interested in brain science, hoping it would inform their teaching practice in the best way possible. However, they lacked perhaps in the depth and breadth of actual neuroscientific knowledge to be able to (1) understand how brain really works and what that means for their pedagogical practice, and (2) to identify facts from myths when coming across neuroscientific news. As per usual, good intentions are not enough to protect oneself from being fooled by the shiny promises of neuroscience when presented with incomplete, altered, rephrased findings that only then can be translated into actionable steps and applications in education and other fields.

What can be done, then? The researchers suggest various solutions to address these findings, such as “enhancing links between research and educational practice, where some experts have started elaborating papers to properly inform laypeople about some of the main findings of neuroscience applied to education” (Ferrer et al. 2016). Teacher training is also mentioned as the place where trainee teachers can learn the skills to critically identify relevant neuroscientific information in their practice. Finally, non-commercial in-service courses can address the common myths for those who are already applying their knowledge in the classroom.

As for other non-experts (including yours truly) let us not be fooled by the neuro jargon and brain scan images, but rather ‘consume responsibly’ the latest neuroscientific news. Ultimately, a decent dose of critical scepticism should protect us from the spread of neuromyths.


Carreira, S. (2018) ‘Eso que crees de la neuroeducación es mentira, La Voz de Galicia,  3.12.201, available:

Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., and Jolles, J. (2012) Neuromyths in education: prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3:429. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

Ferrero, M., Garaizar, P., and Vadillo, M.A. (2016) Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence among Spanish Teachers and an Exploration of Cross-Cultural Variation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10: 496. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00496

Gleichgerrcht, E., Luttges, B. L., Salvarezza, F., and Campos, A. L. (2015). Educational neuromyths among teachers in Latin America. Mind Brain Education, 9, 170–178. doi: 10.1111/mbe.12086

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2002) Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science. Paris: OECD.