Neuroscience

The Real Voyage of Discovery

Tararua Ranges Waterfall

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes. - Marcel Proust

Richard Margesson at Lake Lucidus

Spending just a few hours in nature's therapy room helps me see the world with fresh eyes.

It's not just that the colours in nature are so harmonious or that the process of putting one foot in front of the other allows the mind and body to work in synchronicity.

I put the change in perspective down to the brain rewiring itself.

How we think filters our experience of reality.

For example, severely depressed people report that they see in shades of grey. The brain has literally filtered out vibrant colours.

But if a brain can do that, then it can rewire itself to bring colours back into life.

There is no better place to do that than in nature. And there is no better activity to encourage the process than walking in nature, with other people.

The Intuition of Cows

You must study deeply the hidden laws of Nature, and when you know them arrange your life according to them, using always reason and common sense.  - Krishnamurti

Who would have thought cows know so much?

On Wednesday morning, Rosa and I watched a herd of about 20 adult and yearling cows cross the stream between one pasture and another. Judging by the volume of mooing, it sounded like an ordeal, especially for the younger ones.

"Why do they bother? Is the grass greener over there?" Rosa asked.

"God knows. Cows aren't that bright," I replied.

How wrong I was.

That night, the tail end of a cyclone whacked New Zealand harder than expected. Through sweeping curtains of rain the next morning, we watched the normally placid stream outside our house rise and swirl. At about 11.00 AM it burst its banks and flooded the field the cows had left the day before. The water also trapped us in our house for the next 24 hours.

Not until the storm passed, the floods subsided and the cows gathered to look wistfully at the pasture they had vacated two days before did we understand.

"Those cows knew exactly what was coming while we had no idea," Rosa said.

Cows aren't so dumb after all. We got stuck and they didn't. We left it too late and they anticipated. We have conscious rational minds and they don't.

I think I need to study the hidden laws of cows a bit more closely.

How to Heal Trauma in Nature

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. - Henry David Thoreau, Walking

For Thoreau, a path in nature was a pathway of healing.

When he connected a path on the ground with a path in the mind, he did not know about neuroscience. Since then, a medical revolution has revealed the wonders of neuroplasticity. Our thoughts travel along neural pathways that become more ingrained with repetition.

This is a message of hope because anyone with a little knowledge and determination can change their thought patterns in about 42 days. It's a process called "rewiring".

However, the same research shows that the subconscious emotional mind, functioning below conscious awareness, operates up to nine seconds ahead of the conscious mind. It's not enough to have a single thought. You need as much knowledge, training and practice to override powerful and instinctive subconscious patterns as you do to move safely and joyfully over a wilderness track.

I ponder this while walking the rough track between Big Hellfire Hut and the next destination, Mason's Bay Hut. After so many weeks of walking, the mind soon slides into an easy groove  while the body does what it needs to do. It's a wonderful feeling of inner cooperation that allows the imagination to take wing.

However, not all trails are smooth and not all thought patterns are joyous.

Take trauma. Today, we know so much about how the chemical composition of the brain changes in response to a terrifying event. People who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are quick learners. They have learned to fear a situation, person or event in milliseconds. In an instant, a new neural pathway is laid down and becomes reinforced over time.

Trauma is an uncontrollable, runaway process that lies beyond conscious control.

Yet, walking down this trail, I'm reminded again and again that our ancestors lived close to nature. And nature is as much a place of violence, blood and death as it is of peace, growth and life. The Maori who lived here engaged in warfare as a lifestyle and trained boys from the age of five to be warriors.

What process allowed Maori warriors to reintegrate safely back into their iwi or tribe after extended and brutal war expeditions?

The question is relevant because today we're seeing unprecedented levels of PTSD and associated symptoms in American, British, European, Australian and NZ servicemen and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am told that more US servicemen have taken their own lives than have been killed in combat.

Out here, it is possible to tap into a sense of grief that this is the case and a renewed feeling of determination to play a role, no matter how small, in preventing further loss.

From the perspective of a former Army officer who went to war three times and from the viewpoint of a therapist who works in this area, I believe it is not the event that is the problem.

The problem is how much stress a person has at the time of the event. Our modern, fast-paced, over-crowded and socially-isolated life creates high levels of stress. The higher their stress level, the more sensitive a person is to an event.

It seems it takes only one too many stressful events to tip a stressed person over the edge into full-blown trauma.

Maoris, with such a strong sense of belonging to their iwis and tribes as well as to nature and with a rich history of myth and legend, were not stressed. Therefore, they could cope with the daily traumas of life, so much better.

Fortunately, we have a simple and elegant solution.

The way to heal traumatic memories is a three-step process. First, relax the mind and reduce stress levels. Second, neutralise the fear associated with the event. And third, "rewire" new and much more positive thought patterns.

It works in an indoor clinic setting. I've proved that over and over. However, this process will work even more swiftly in nature's therapy room.

I am going to bring former servicemen into wild settings like this to show them how to walk a trail of healing on the ground and in their minds.

 

How Walking Shapes Your Brain

Could it be that we only understand our environment when we move at a walking pace?

The question pulled me forward from the fly camp I'd made under wind-tossed beech trees  and on to Big Hellfire Hut two hours distant. It stayed with me while I slid down the sandy trail made by penguins and deer to the beach 200 metres below.

It's an extraordinary feeling, knowing you are the only person for many kilometres. There's a sense of loneliness and vulnerability as well as freedom and belonging. I can't find this combination anywhere but out here. It feels right.

While I pad down the beach, I scan constantly. There's so much to see, touch, smell, hear, taste.  This is what it must have been like for our ancestors, walking in the midst of so much land with so few people.

I stop short by a stranded kelp plant, stretched like a marooned alien on the sand. The stem clutches a stone so tightly that I can't pry it loose. Next, I track penguin footprints up and into the scrub, seeking the mystery of a roosting place. From there, a cleft in a rock attracts my attention. I explore and experiment with photography. At the end of the beach a rock ridge bars the view. Of course, I must climb it to see what is on the other side.

The innate urge to go further is a reminder that we are born to explore and to walk. Our ancestors literally walked themselves out of Africa to populate the planet. They used their brains to change the world. Today, contemporary hunter-gatherers still walk prodigious distances, about 16 kilometres a day for men and about 10 kilometres for women. Over a year, they walk about 5,000 kilometres. Imagine walking the length of New Zealand and back again, every year.

The idea makes me wonder, "How has walking changed the human brain?"

I think an evolutionary argument can be made that walking led to the development of our brains. Based on experience, my hunch is that our brains absorb information best when walking.

We've designed a world where we move too fast, zooming along in miniature time-capsules, trying to beat the clock and meet illusory deadlines. It's stressful because the subconscious mind doesn't understand "tick-tock" time. It operates on a sensory and primal rhythm. When we move too fast, we cease to see our environment as it really is.

Out here, walking in wilderness at about 5 kilometres an hour or less, the conscious and subconscious can learn to work together in relaxed harmony. As a result, our experience of the world opens up. When walking, the world unscrambles and becomes intelligible in a way that doesn't happen in cities and towns.

I freeze. Something doesn't fit. I look around. There! Three white-tailed deer are grazing on salt grass about 50 metres away, upwind. An alert doe lifts her head after five minutes and stares at me. She drops it again to feed and I release my breath. Unconsciously, I had been holding it. The wind is chilly, though, and I walk on. At once, their tails flash warning signals and they bound effortlessly uphill.

I walk more briskly now, breathing deeper. The brain needs glucose and oxygen in the right proportion for clear thinking just as an engine needs fuel and air in the correct mixture for smooth running. Walking gives the brain what it needs.

At the beginning of every tramp, it never ceases to astonish me how walking sparks clarity of thought. If our conscious mind is a problem-solving, solution-finding tool, then walking is the sharpening stone.

The ancients understood this. Hippocrates said, "Walking is man's best medicine." Aristotle walked while he thought. Diogenes the Cynic may have coined the Latin phrase, solvitur ambulando: "It is solved by walking".

We are not designed for the modern fast-paced, stressed-out, sedentary world so many of us live in.

We are designed to walk in natural settings, alert, relaxed and tuned in.

At the end of the beach, I meet another tramper. I'm glad to see him and look forward to a companionable evening. The people you meet out here are kindred spirits.

For a few days or longer, we each find a way to reject what has become the norm and return to the nomadic ways of our ancestors. Walking a long trail reshapes our brains to match theirs.

"How do you spend long nights on the trail?"

Long Nights

One of my readers asked, "How do you spend long nights in the outdoors?"

The answer is, "Much as I'd spend a long night indoors."

I toss and turn, read a book on my iPhone, snooze and wake up again. If it's raining, I feel for leaks and tweak guy ropes. If I'm chilly or overheated, I put on more clothes or I take some off. If I'm sore or aching, I take an aspirin. I may even go through the effort of making a hot drink. If I want an adventure, I break camp and walk by head-torch.

At the start of a tramp, I curse, moan, question what I'm doing and laugh in disbelief at my stupidity in thinking this would be fun and enjoyable. Why forego the haven of a warm cosy bed next to my luscious wife for this?

The reality is that long nights will outnumber short ones but if I put comfort to one side, they are no different to ones indoors.

You still have to master your mind and this is where it gets interesting.

I remind myself that waking during the night has been the norm for most of human history. In fact, broken nights (or segmented sleep patterns) are still the rule and not the exception in many cultures around the world. For example, anthropologists embedded in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies report that their subjects are some of the happiest and well-rested people on the planet, despite waking up at night for extended periods.

Social scientists and historians also reveal that our pre-industrial forebears followed similar segmented sleeping patterns. The "Myth of the 8 Hour" sleep may be just that. When you take a longer term view, it can come as a pleasant surprise to acknowledge that we are "hardwired" to have two distinct chunks of sleep a night.

I tell myself that long nights on the trail are simply nature's way of recalibrating a more natural rhythm of rest. I don't need  a unbroken sleep to perform well the next day and nor do you.

One of my delights is to slip into a sound and refreshing at midday sleep in the same way that a modern day hunter-gatherer does. It is good for the brain as well as the body and surely contributes to the sense of intense well-being nearly all trampers experience after just a few days on the trail.

Knowledge is power. In this instance, knowing that it is normal and beneficial to awaken during the night helps me relax about it. The more relaxed I feel, the shorter the night seems.

I may not be as comfortable on the trail as I would be indoors. But when I lie awake at night, knowing I am cradled in the arms of Papa-tu-a-nuku, the Earth Mother, and blanketed by Rangi-nui, the Sky Father, I feel at home.

Get High

Today, I decided to get high with Eli from Israel.

Before you judge, I’m talking about a natural high, not a drug-induced one. It’s splitting hairs, though. A good steep climb up through a tangled beech forest and out onto an exposed ridge-line sends a  powerful stream of chemicals through your brain.

The reward? A state of blissed-out euphoria. After lunch, I sunk onto a patch of alpine grass a hundred metres above French Ridge Hut. Cradled in a sun-warmed bowl that sheltered me from the cutting wind, I focussed dreamily on rainbow curtains shimmering from a wind-blown waterfall and on clouds boiling over a pass only to evaporate against invisible fingers of warmth rising from the valley.

Eli, my equally spaced-out walking companion is my age but an inexperienced tramper. He’s having a bad “trip" because he feels anxious about walking back down on his own. He’s brought a little food and a sleeping bag but no stove or fuel. I offer to share mine and he relaxes.

I came up here for solitude but now I find how enriching it is to share an evening with this kind and thoughtful stranger. There is nothing like getting high in nature’s therapy room.

Most people want an instant fix without effort. Doctors, psychiatrists and drug dealers are happy to oblige. But you can’t get this natural high without stepping into the pharmacopeia of nature’s therapy room.

Come on in and blow your mind.