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How can VR improve mental health

Eascape, a new VR relaxation app created by neuroscientists and landscape architects, makes it possible to benefit from the healing power of nature without leaving home. The test version of the app has just been launched, as the whole world deals with the consequences of coronavirus waves and lockdowns. It is not a coincidence. In this difficult time creators of the app encourage us all to start looking at VR technology as an effective self-care tool, ready to reconnect us with nature and ease our minds. 

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An intensive work on the project started almost exactly one year ago – during the first lockdown. We wanted to better understand people's psychological needs in times of confinement, so we conducted the world-wide survey on this very topic. What we have learned was very striking, although not that surprising – at least not to us – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, co-founder of Eascape, then she adds: It turned out that what we, humans, miss the most in such difficult conditions is, apart from being close with relatives and friends, a deeper connection with nature. The pandemic has shown what neuroscientists and environmental psychologists have known for a long time – that being around green spaces is crucial to our mental health and cognitive processes such as memory, attention or creativity.

We need nature more than ever

If we talk about our exposure to nature the situation had been dire even before pandemic, especially in big cities. Science shows that urban, stressful and chaotic environments full of stimulation increase the risk of psychiatric disorders by 38% as compared to rural living. We work long hours in office spaces, away from green scenery, then we go home, where we often stay until the next day, too tired to go out and have at least a stroll in a nearby park. And even if we are keen to spend some relaxing time in green environments – we often simply cannot do so, since due to the urbanization and biodiversity loss processes we have no longer unlimited access to such spaces. This simply cannot be good to our well-being. We need to take action. We must be mindful of what we expose ourselves to everyday, to keep a healthy mind, help with depression and anxiety, alleviate stress, and reduce the risk of dementias – explains Nicolas Escoffier, one of the creators of Eascape.

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Landscapes that ease our minds

Eascape builds on the concept of Contemplative Landscapes, an idea conceived in 2011 by Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, as part of her scientific work in Landscape Architecture and Urban Ecology. In her research, she found that there are certain characteristics of the scenic views that can influence the human brain to improve mental health and well-being. Contemplative Landscapes should for example contain a certain landform with many layers, natural asymmetry and the depth of the view.

Being surrounded by such scenery we should be able to observe subtle phenomena such as the play of light and shade, trembling leaves or shadows growing and shrinking with the passage of the sun. What adds to contemplativeness of a landscape are also archetypal elements like a running body of water, a path, an old tree or a big stone. 

The space should also carry a character of peace and silence, providing comfort and  a sense of solitude. It activates our nervous system and a built-in biophilia – a state that exists in all of us since the time when we were still living in close relation with nature – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo. 

VR experience like no other 

Eascape is nothing like VR games. It differs even from other VR relaxation apps. Most of the VR apps absorb our attention completely. We have tasks to do, fantastic creatures to meet or new things to learn. All this generates the beta waves in our brain, making our mind work at top speed, and eventually causing mental fatigue. Eascape is not a gaming experience. It works in the opposite way to generate the alpha waves which are characteristic for the state of relaxation and mindfulness. On a daily basis, we have access to such state only through sleep, meditation or close contact with nature – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo.

The app contains full HD 3D 180° videos, recorded in a scientifically confirmed Contemplative Landscape site: Parchi di Nervi in Genoa, Italy. The user is able to hear the natural, relaxing sound of chirping birds and teleport to four locations across the lawn. The environment has been designed in a very minimalistic way, intentionally deprived of special effects or extraordinary elements. It is a place for soft fascination and gentle exploration that calms down the mind. The whole experience should feel as a pleasant mindfulness practice, available at one’s fingertips. The Eascape team recommends spending 10 min per day in Eascape for 2 weeks to see the improvements in mood. A pilot test showed 32% reduction of depressive mood after just 7 min using Eascape demo, when compared to another VR environment.

 

 

Healthy VR environments to the rescue of today’s societies

We are sure that healthy VR environments can make a huge change in the way we as society deal with mental health problems – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo. Desire to help those who need access to nature have brought together the Eascape team which consists of people from all around the world. Growing up, they were all observing different kinds of landscapes, learning how it can affect people's well-being. That was a huge source of inspiration. 

When the world of Academia meets VR industry

Among Eascape team members there are scientists from University of Porto and National University of Singapore who specialize in Neuroscience, Environmental Psychology and Landscape Architecture. Why did they decide to go out with their expertise beyond the world of Academia and cross their paths with the VR industry? We wanted to use our knowledge and create a tool that would be accessible and helpful for everyone, especially for those who struggle with depression, anxiety, sleeplessness or burnout, as well as for elderly people who due to their health conditions often stay in isolation – says Nicolas Escoffier. 

An invitation to a green peaceful change

A free version of Eascape is being launched right now on Oculus. But that is just the beginning. We dream big. We intend to conduct further research on the app, adjust it to particular groups of users and add new healthy environments based on Contemplative Landscapes from all corners of the world. But for now, we just want as many people as possible to try Eascape and be part of our green peaceful change. Our app is not about replacing nature – that’s simply impossible. But when you simply cannot access it, it is as close as it gets to the real experience – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo.

 

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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.

References:

Aarhus University (2018) Being surrounded by green space in childhood may improve mental health of adults, [press release], 28 Feb, available: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-02/au-bsb022019.php

Francis, G. (2018) “Kids spend just ONE HOUR a day outdoors but two hours staring at screen”, The Mirror, 15 Jul, available: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/kids-spend-just-one-hour-12923237

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: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/people-in-nature/200901/no-more-nature-deficit-disorder

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.

REFERENCES:

Carreira, S. (2018) ‘Eso que crees de la neuroeducación es mentira, La Voz de Galicia,  3.12.201, available: https://www.lavozdegalicia.es/noticia/educacion/2018/11/21/neuromito/00031542825201509389918.htm

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.

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Book review of “Shinrin-yoku” by Qing Li

It’s time to review a book that you might gladly keep on the bookshelf as a reminder of the important lesson it teaches about the magic of trees - the hardback edition of "Shinrin-yoku. The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing" written by the very man who could be considered the founding father of the movement, Dr Qing Li. He is an Associate Professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and an expert on forest-bathing and the president of the Society of Forest Medicine in Japan. He took what was a Japanese tradition of spending time in nature, more specifically forest and gardens, as a health practice and turned it into a scientific discipline. And this, we have him to thank for.

The moment the book arrived, it looked like it could take a proud place next to my Meik Wiking’s “Little Book of Hygge”. They are both part of the Penguin Life collection and it shows; it smelled like a nice book should and was a pure pleasure to touch the quality paper pages as I was slowly turning them over. The book is a mixture of rather large font print and many high quality, carefully selected photographs, and a couple of maps, that do not just complement the text but are an essential part of appreciating the book. I don’t see how an audiobook version could give the ‘reader’ the same kind of experience.

One strange thing about the text was its alignment, where it occupies a quasi-column like part of the page, aligned to the left. The key points are then highlighted (repeated from the main text) in a larger, grey font as if they were in a second column. That bothered me at the start, but it’s easy to get used to. There are also inserts every now and then of personal stories of people’s experiences with forest-bathing. They bring a nice touch of showing how the art of forest-bathing applies to the average person.

The book is divided into four sections. The first part explains how the practice of forest-bathing moved from a Japanese cultures’ art of living to a science. This is where hard-to-convince readers might find a good source of scientific facts that prove that forest-bathing is a medicinal practice (there are plenty of references at the end of the book too). The second part explains how to practice shinrin-yoku, giving very practical clues regarding the details of the therapy. Third part explains how we can bring the forest indoors by using essential oils or house plants. And finally, the fourth section talks about the future of the planet, the forests and human health from the point of view of shinrin-yoku. As a bonus, at the end of the book, there is a POMS (Profile of Mood States) test we can take before and after forest-bathing.

There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.

So what is exactly shinrin-yoku and why is it worth our attention?

It is the practice of spending time in the forest for better health, happiness and productivity. The author studied the effects of forest walks on busy managers from Tokyo and it showed that the beneficial health effects can last as long as thirty days and can be felt after only 20 minutes in nature. Forest bathing is thought to not only improve mood and lower stress, but have many other health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood-sugar levels, improving pain threshold and boosting the immune system (increased NK cells count) and help to lose weight too.

Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our sense, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.

How to properly forest-bathe to reap the most benefits?

The author recommends forest paths that are at least 5km long and should take about 2 hours to thread through. However, even a short walk in a city park is beneficial. Think about walking slowly, leaving all distractions behind and trying to experience the forest with all senses, touching the trees, smelling the flowers, ‘ingesting’ the humid air of a dark forest, and perhaps picking some wild berries, drinking some water from a pure stream or making tea from young pine buds.

Another important aspect is to choose forests with plenty of evergreen conifers, as their essential oils is where part of the benefit resides. Phytoncides, or trees natural oils that function as the trees’ defense mechanism to protect from fungi, bacteria and insects apparently also have a beneficial effect on our immune system when we breath it in. What’s more, using essential oil diffusers at home can have the same effect.

If you want to enhance even more your forest-bathing experience, choose forests paths along rivers, streams, ponds or waterfalls. Water helps to ionize negatively the air and bring our bodies to an electric balance, which has an energizing and refreshing effects and which further translates into higher mental clarity and overall sense of wellbeing. And don’t be afraid of going barefoot to get some grounding and boosting the balancing properties of your forest walk.

The art of forest-bathing is the art of connecting with nature through our senses.

The recipe is pretty straightforward and should be easy to apply even in the busiest of schedules and apparently unfavorable conditions. It’s as easy as leaving the phone and all distractions at home and going for a walk in the nearest park or forest. Maybe try to bring the kids along too. As the author says, “if we let children into the forest, they will become adults who will protect it”. Also, research shows that spending time in nature makes us more trusting, generous and caring, which are usually the values we would certainly want to teach our children too.

In summary, the book is an easy, inspiring and a relaxing read. The only problem is reading it at home and wanting to get out into the forest right that very moment! Every now and then a new term/concept becomes a hype and everyone seems to be tagging their pictures just to show how #hygge their evenings are or how they have mastered #mindfulness. Perhaps #forestbathing and #shinrinyoku should be next things to adopt and put into practice. I know I am jumping on that bandwagon with both feet.

Sources and picture credits:

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

Images:

  1. Weronika Gasior
  2. Weronika Gasior
  3. andrew-charney/ Unsplash
  4. jake-melara/ Unsplash
  5. jordan-whitt/ Unsplash