Is Northwest nature worship neurological?

Our religious impulses toward the wilderness could be boosted by the way our brains work.
Our religious impulses toward the wilderness could be boosted by the way our brains work.

I've been reading a new book, Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia (Ronsdale Press, $21.95) edited by Douglas Todd. It's a collection of works by Northwest writers and scholars about the spiritual and utopian impulses of Cascadia, the region encompassing Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. One of the things our region is known for is its lack of adherents to traditional religious groups. Instead, we're strong in a category that Mark Shibley, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at Southern Oregon University describes as "secular but spiritual."

There are a number of theories about why this is so. Religious apathy on the part of pioneers, for example. We weren't settled by Puritans or Catholic missionaries. Another theory is that the power and scale of the West's landscape simply defeated institutional religion. Churches and missions could not compete with the mountains. Shibley writes:

In the Pacific Northwest, religious experience — the charged and creative moment of encounter with the sacred — is rooted historically in contact with the landscape. That is certainly true in Native American culture, and Euro-American explorers and settlers, too, found the vast and imposing geography of Cascadia both overwhelming and awe-inspiring, by turns savage wilderness and Garden of Eden.

One way this free-range spiritual thinking has played out is how love of nature and to some extent the environmental movement itself have become the accepted secular faith here. Some, like naturalist and pioneer conservationist John Muir, have found ecstatic religious experience in the wilds, what Muir called touching "the naked God." For others, it's being drawn to the outdoors for its own sake and a deep feeling of contentment and renewal that it brings.

But those effects could partly be neurological as well. In other words, the sacred effect could have a secular, scientific explanation. Evidence of that is reportedly provided in a new study. Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust was a Neuroscientist writes on his blog that encounters with nature have a dramatic impact on the brain:

[I]nteracting with nature (at least when compared to a hectic urban landscape) dramatically improves improve cognitive function. In particular, being in natural settings restores our ability to exercise directed attention and working memory, which are crucial mental talents. The basic idea is that nature, unlike a city, is filled with inherently interesting stimuli (like a sunset, or an unusual bird) that trigger our involuntary attention, but in a modest fashion. Because you can't help but stop and notice the reddish orange twilight sky — paying attention to the sunset doesn't take any extra work or cognitive control — our attentional circuits are able to refresh themselves. A walk in the woods is like a vacation for the prefrontal cortex.

Lehrer draws from an abstract of an article slated for publication in Psychological Science titled "The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature" based on experiments involving people who walked in nature and viewed pictures of nature in a test of what is called "Attention Restoration Theory."

Seeing the "naked God" could simply be having a brain that's rested and re-booting while away from the man-made chaos of urban living.

NOTE: I plan to review Cascadia at a future date.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.