Our brains are a mess: How nature brings balance

I was at a talk on compassion by Professor Paul Gilbert OBE last week where he said something along the lines of, ‘Our brains are a mess’. This aside was based on the evolution of the brain, back through time from reflective human, to behavioural mammals, to visceral reptiles simply responding to threats and opportunities. This evolution is the basis for some human ailments, to feel good we need emotional balance – happiness and contentment comes through balancing threat, desire and affiliation. For example, when our threat response is overactive, our positive affect is reduced and we can become anxious or depressed.

Finding Balance Through Nature

Finding Balance Through Nature

Affect is the evaluation of the things our senses bring into our minds – assigning value and experiencing feeling or emotion. Affect is important. It is the constant companion of sensation and we have an affective system that controls our heart-rate, muscles and the way our brain functions. Positive affect, which is boosted by immersion in and connectedness to nature, is relaxing – broadening our processing and horizons. With negative affect we focus on an issue, and our muscles tense, ready to respond: very useful to our ancestors when they were threatened by a snake, but frustrating to us when we ruminate on a deadline at work or someone’s unkindness.

Paul explained that research into the neurophysiology of emotion suggests three dimensions to the affect regulator system (just one approach to simplifying a complex process), which are easily understood in the context of our everyday lives:

  • Drive & Vitality – Resource focus – wanting, pursuing, achieving and consuming; a source of anticipation and pleasure that is often the focus of materialistic cultures.
  • Contentment, safety & connection – Affiliate focus – soothing, safeness and kindness; a positive calm.
  • Anxiety – Threat focused – protection, safety seeking, activating and inhibiting.

The majority of studies into the benefits of nature, and a connection to nature, have focused on positive affect, with some mixed results – because the measures and approach to positive affect may not be tapping into the right aspects – after all what are positive emotions? We can be happy when content or amused for example. Research in neurophysiology has found two types of positive affect, drive seeking or contentment seeking.

Listening to Paul’s Compassion Focused Therapy talk, I felt the affect regulation system model helped explain our need for nature, but could also inform further research into understanding the benefits we find in nature. We know that nature, and a connection to it, is restorative, bringing the vitality we need in life – but part of the story would seem to be about affiliation, soothing and contentment. Indeed, when we are in nature, is contentment and soothing the active component in regulating the drive and threat systems, thereby bringing balance, restoration and positive affect?

Creating Places that bring Balance

Creating Natural Places that bring Balance

It can be asked if this matters – nature brings happiness, vitality, life satisfaction and much more – that’s great, so let’s get outdoors. However, understanding why nature is good for our mental well-being helps establish the types of activities in nature that are most beneficial. And, therefore, the types of natural spaces we should provide for people – moving from green spaces, to green places where a soothing contentment in nature can be found. Finally, the neurophysiological basis provides a holistic approach and compelling argument to convince others of the need for nature in our everyday lives.


See Paul Gilbert’s lecture Compassion: Saviour of the Universe and the Tragedies of the Human Mind on 8th Dec. 2015 in Derby.

Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in psychiatric treatment, 15(3), 199-208.

Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Mitra, R., Franks, L., Richter, A., & Rockliff, H. (2008). Feeling safe and content: A specific affect regulation system? Relationship to depression, anxiety, stress, and self-criticism. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 3(3), 182-191.

About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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