Vitamin N | Ming Kuo | TEDxDirigo

Vitamin N | Ming Kuo | TEDxDirigo

December 2, 2019 4 By William Morgan


Translator: Hélène Vernet
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney I’d like to share with you something
that it took me 30 years to believe, 30 years and a couple of hundred studies
from all over the world. I’m a scientist so,
it was kind of a hard sell. What if, in creating the modern world, we’ve been making an important mistake? What if we’re missing an important
ingredient in a healthy human habitat? I believe that most of us,
most of the time, are suffering from
Nature Deficit Disorder. Now, that’s kind of a radical idea, right? I mean, do you feel
like you’re in deficit? Does the CDC have a minimum
daily requirement of nature? (Laughter) No. Right now, currently,
nature is viewed as a treat, and as such, if you can afford it,
great! It’s very yummy! But if you can’t, it’s no big deal. In fact, if you can afford it, it’s not clear you shouldn’t spend
your money on other things, right? And as a consequence, we routinely
destroy places like these. And we routinely make places like these. (Laughter) That’s a school, not a prison, (Laughter) and it won an award for design. (Laughter) I have come to believe that places
like these are importantly wrong. The great biologist Leo Wilson tells us that humanity is a biological species
living in a biological environment, and that like all species,
we are exquisitely adapted to the environments in which we evolved. If you look at human evolution from the time that we first
got really good at tools, about 2.5 million years ago, and you fast forward to the present, for almost that entire time,
we were finding shelter, wherever we can. We were on a kind of all century,
all millennia, camping trip. It’s only in the very last bit of time
that we actually moved into settlements. So, what does this have
to do with modern life? So we live differently as a species
now than we used to live. Probably you’re thinking,
“But I like indoor plumbing,” right? Surely, what we have now is better, but let’s look again at the the way
human evolution went. So here’s human evolutionary history
from the Stone Age to the present, and that little sliver is the time
we’ve been in settlements. So here we have been
in all these different environments – mountains, coasts, forests – all this time, different environments, but for the vast majority of that time,
no matter what kind of wilderness it was, we were in daily contact with nature. Has this marked us? I would contend that it does. Some of you may remember –
I remember – zoos in the old days. Zoos were basically
just long lines of cages: the mountain lion cage,
the wildebeest cage, the bear cage, etc In those cages, animals received
everything that we thought they needed. We gave them shelter, water,
all the monkey chow they could want. And yet, the animals were dying
at a pretty good clip, sometimes faster than they would die out in the wild where their needs
were not being met. This was both puzzling
and very expensive for the zoos. So zoos experimented. They experimented a lot
with how they would house their animals, and finally, eventually,
they discovered a secret which is that if you house
an animal in a habitat which is most similar to the environment
in which they evolved, their ancestral habitat, they do better. So now, when we go to a zoo,
all we can see is ancestral habitats. “Mommy, where’s the giraffe? – Oh, I think it’s back there,
behind the … No!” So, animals do best in the environments
in which they evolved. in fact, organisms in unfit habitats undergo social, psychological,
and physical breakdown. If humans evolved
in daily contact with nature, then is an environment in which
we are not in daily contact with nature, going to cause social, psychological,
and physical breakdown? If it does, perhaps
we are not at our best, perhaps we are undergoing social,
psychological, and physical breakdown, even if we’re used to it,
even if we feel we’re fine. So let’s take a look at the evidence. One of the things that happens
when you house animals in unfit habitats, say overcrowded cages,
is you get a lot of aggression, more aggression than you might see
in the wild or in more fit habitats. Might that be true of humans? How would we find out, short of people, putting people in cages and assigning
them to more and less nature? Well, it turns out
that Chicago Public Housing is a ready-made grand-scale experiment
in the effects of nature on people. You have lots and lots
of architecturally-identical buildings. Some of them have
a little greenery around them. Some of them have less. Most importantly, people are randomly
assigned through sheer chance to different buildings. So there’s no reason
to expect any differences between the folks who end up
in greener buildings, and the folks who end up
in less green buildings. Sheer chance! We sent expert interviewers
into Chicago Public Housing, to lots and lots of different
buildings, to have them ask how residents handled
different kinds of conflicts. What we found is that sure enough,
in greener buildings, residents were systematically likely
to report a better handling of arguments. They were more likely to use positive
techniques in handling an argument such as discussing something calmly
or getting a third opinion. They were less likely
to raise their voice, to threaten someone, to threaten to use a knife or a gun, or to use a knife or a gun. That’s kind of an amazing finding,
and we were kind of frankly skeptical. That’s kind of our job. So we’re skeptical and we say, “Okay,
how can we check if this is true?” Well, we asked the Chicago Police
to please share with us their crime reports
for Chicago Public Housing, and lo and behold, we found
in Chicago’s police crime reports, the exact same pattern. The greener buildings
had fewer violent crimes. That finding has now been replicated
in many places with many populations, and not only that extended, but now, we’ve seen
a whole series of studies, dozens of studies showing
that when you have access to nature, you have better outcomes. The second list below are good outcomes and those are promoted
by access to nature. The list above are bad outcomes, and those are promoted by nature deficits. Those are pretty serious outcomes,
I have hope you’ll agree. Psychological breakdown. ADHD is one of the most common
neurobiological disorders, and it’s especially common in children. So if you have a classroom
with 30 kids in it, you’re expecting three kids
with ADHD, or 3.3 kids. We took a bunch of kids with ADHD on forced marches for 20 minutes
through different settings: 20 minutes in a park,
and a week later, 20 minutes in a nice residential
area that was less green, and another week later,
20 minutes in downtown. Not all the kids did the walks
in those orders. But the point is, after they did each
of these walks, we’d take them indoors, and another experimenter
would test their concentration. The other experimenter didn’t know
which walk they had been on, that was really important. What did we find? We found that Johnny performed
substantially better in his concentration after the park walk
than after the other two walks. Furthermore, the size
of this boost, this difference, was the same size as the peak
effect for methylphenidate also known as Ritalin. We don’t know how long it lasts, but it seemed like
a pretty intriguing finding. So, we followed up
with a national study. We asked parents all over the US
to tell us how their kids symptoms were after activities conducted
in different settings, for instance, basketball
in an indoor setting or basketball in a green outdoor setting. What happens to your kid after
these activities in these settings? Lo and behold, it turns out
that parents tell us systematically their kids symptoms are better
after activities in green outdoor settings and this is true for kids
from five years old to 18, living all over the U.S.,
Pear Harbor to Albuquerque, inner city Detroit
to the suburbs of Washington DC. So, that’s ADHD. Contact with nature improves ADHD. What about depression? Depression is one of the most common
neurological problems in adults. It causes tremendous levels of disability,
and it’s a major problem in this country. When you look at the amount
of greenness around a person’s home, it turns out you can start
to predict their levels of depression. If they don’t have clinical depression
you can predict their depressive symptoms, starting signs of depression, and furthermore, you can predict the rate
of clinical depression in the population: more green, less depressive signs,
less clinical depression. This work has been conducted
in the Netherlands with over 345,000 thousand
people, and in Wisconsin. So you know that it’s true
not only for people, but for cheese-heads (Laughter) Yet another study conducted in London
looked at pharmacies, pharmacies that served catchment areas
that were either greener or less green, and that had comparable income. They found that if you looked
at pharmacies in greener neighborhoods, they tended to dispense fewer
mood-related medications. So, you’re seeing this actual
difference in healthcare needs as a result of this difference
in symptomatology. That translates the whole series
of other effects. Again, the mental or psychological
disorders in the top list are things that we are protected against
if we have contact with nature, and the items in the list below are things
promoted by contact with nature: you’re better, smarter, kinder, gentler. Physical breakdown. Cardiovascular disease involves
things like heart attacks, stroke, high blood pressure;
it’s incredibly common. In fact, heart attacks
are the leading killer in the US, and we spend roughly 300 billion dollars
a year on cardiovascular issues alone. Does this have to be? It turns out that a walk in the woods
makes a substantial difference in your cardiovascular profile,
in your blood. So let’s say you and I go for a walk
in Acadia, and I bring a syringe. (Laughter) We walk along and after a while,
there’s a good stopping point, and I take your blood and I analyze it. If I analyze your blood after
you’ve walked in the woods for a while, I will find more good chemicals, more adiponectin which fights
against atherosclerosis, and more DHEA which fights
against heart disease, and I’ll find fewer negative
chemicals, bad chemicals. There’s a whole host of chemicals
associated with high blood pressure that drops when you go
for a walk in the woods. Again, a walk in the urban setting
doesn’t do anything for you. That’s just the way it is, I’m sorry. So this walk in the woods
significantly changes your cardiovascular health
profile for that moment. Okay, that’s great, but
what if we can’t get to the woods? Well, it turns out
that a green neighborhood cultivates cardiovascular health. In a green neighborhood, people are less
likely to have high blood pressure. In a green neighborhood, people are less
likely to have cardiovascular diseases. In a green neighborhood,
people are less likely to die from a cardiovascular disease. And in a green neighborhood,
if you get a stroke, you’re more likely to survive it. So it’s building not only
cardiovascular health, but also cardiovascular resilience, and that, again,
is just the tip of the iceberg. Again, many, many negative outcomes are associated with inadequate access
to nature, nature deficits, and the second list is good things – trust me, adiponectin is a good thing – that are associated with having
more access to nature. But, I want to just talk
about a few items in the list above: diabetes and obesity. Contact with nature reduces diabetes. This is serious business. Diabetes is the seventh
leading killer in the US, and its complications include blindness, heart disease, kidney failure, and amputations. So, when nature protects against diabetes, that’s kind of a big deal. Similarly, obesity is a major problem in this country
and other developed countries, and nature seems
to protect against that as well, ten studies out of ten. All of this evidence, which I’m only just
really giving you the tiniest taste of, suggests that nature
is kind of like a vitamin. It helps us; it promotes
our strength in many ways; and it protects us
against many bad things. So I believe that someday, the CDC will actually have a minimum
daily requirement for vitamin N. Which raises a question:
how much vitamin N should we take? And I have three answers to that. Big doses have big effects. This shows two natural killer cells. They’re white blood cells but for some
reason, they’re yellow in this picture. They’re white blood cells that seek out
cancerous cells and infected cells. They’re kind of the vigilantes
of the immune system. These natural killer cells above
are attacking a cancer cell right now. When they find one, they lob onto it, and they extrude toxic granules
which then explode the cell. How cool is that? (Laughter) So, if you have a good supply of these,
it’s very protective against cancer. People who have a good supply
of natural killer cells are 40% less likely to get cancer over an 11-year window, and the folk 40%
less likely to get cancer compared to people who have
a low supply of natural killer cells. Okay, now what? Well, if I take you on a three-day
weekend in a natural area, it boosts your natural
killer cells by a lot. How much? 50 %. 50 %, and a month later,
if I come back and take your blood again, which is apparently
something I like to do, (Laughter) suddenly, although your natural
killer supply is down from where it first started
immediately after the visit, it’s still 23% above baseline, above where you started. Three-day weekend, 30 days later, still a 23% increase
in natural killer cells. So big doses have big effects,
big important lasting effects. What that means is when we fight to save Acadia
and beautiful lands like that, we are not just protecting
our natural resources, we’re protecting a major health resource. And when you take the time to go
to one of these places for the weekend, you are not just having a treat, you’re doing something
that’s really good for you, you are investing in your future health. It’s almost as if
scientists were telling us that bacon was as good for us as broccoli. You’re welcome! (Laughter) So in the face of that,
you might be thinking, “Well, the everyday doses of nature, the little tiny bits of nature experiences
that you might have in your everyday life, those probably
don’t count for much, right? Driving home along a parkway after work instead of a concrete artery, or washing dishes at the kitchen
window with a green view, is that just a pleasant experience,
or does that actually buy you something?” Well, it turns out that even
these teeny tiny doses have real impacts, measurable impacts. Playing with soil for just five minutes
is enough to flip your nervous system from fight-or-flight response
to the exact opposite – if you care, it’s a parasympathetic
nervous activity and vagal tone. (Laughter) So can five minutes
of looking at pictures of nature. The smell of roses reduces
the stress hormone cortisol in your blood. So these tiny, tiny little doses
have real effects. And what’s really great is they seem
to have cumulative effects. In other words, if you invest
in these tiny little doses in your day, and you get a few of them, then you’re going to get
a cumulative impact. And as a consequence, everyday doses, doses which occur
every day have huge effects. Consider street trees, and I hope you have
street trees in your neighborhood. As you just saw, street trees contribute
to lower levels of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. That is so five minutes ago. (Laughter) Okay, fine, but how big of an effect? How much better is it
to have street trees around? A study in Toronto
with over 2.2 million people calculated the effect
for cardio-metabolic disorders. What they found is that
to get the same increase in cardio-metabolic health that you would get from 11
street trees more on a city block, you would have to give everyone
in the neighborhood, not just the block, 20,000 dollars more annually, or make everyone 1.4 years younger. (Laughter) So, we could either shell out the money
to plant 11 trees – not just 10 , 11 trees on a block – or we could give
20,000 dollars a year more to all the households
in that neighborhood, or we could turn back time. What is the cost of 11 street trees compared to the health care costs
that we’re saving by planting them? What would be the health care savings
if we routinely provided greener neighborhoods
for everyone rich and poor? Which brings us to a final point. You can see poverty from space.
This is Chicago. Green is rich. Not green is poor. That pattern is visible
in satellite imagery from all over the US
and all over the world. Mexico City, Sao Paulo,
Munich, Berlin, Beijing. Everywhere you go in the world
this is the general pattern. It’s not always true,
which is very helpful for me, but it’s generally true. So what are the ramifications of that? If rich is green and poor is not, then how much of the difference in health that’s enjoyed by rich people
versus poor people, is actually due to their daily
contact with nature? Some folks in the UK went to study this. They rounded up mortality records
for 40 million people, and what did they find? Well, rich people died at a much
slower clip than poor people. Okay, we knew that.
We already knew that. But, when you control for, when you look just at people
who live in the same levels of greenness, who have the same levels
of neighborhood greenness, then suddenly, the difference
between rich and poor is cut in half. In half! That means that by greening neighborhoods, we may be reducing
the number of preventable deaths, preventable deaths by one half. So science is telling us
that when we create places like these, they’re importantly wrong. Nature is an essential component
of a healthy human habitat, and addressing nature deficits
is just as important as the 300 billion dollars we spend
on cardiovascular disease a year. It’s just as important
as preventing amputations and heart disease and kidney failure. It’s just as important
as addressing the injustice of all those completely avoidable
illnesses and diseases. Finally, science is telling us that when we fight fiercely
to protect places like these, we are not just preserving gems that our previous generations
have handed down to us, so that we can hand them down
to future generations, we are preserving ourselves. Thank you. (Applause)