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Oliver Sacks On The Healing Power Of Gardens


A neurologist and writer, Sacks noted the importance of green areas to psychological and physiological health.

Oliver Sacks’ dazzling sensibility (poignantly lucid in a letter he wrote as his own death drew near was also affected by one of humankind’s more symbolic spaces, the garden. At some point, the garden even became part of the treatments he issued. “In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens,” he wrote. His findings has been confirmed by a number of studies which have pointed out, among other things, that green areas improve brain function.

In his book, Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (2019), a posthumously published collection of essays, one can find traces of his final obsessions —from ferns, lemurs, and swimming, to the last cases he treated of dementia, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. In one of the essays, “Why We Need Gardens,” the London-born neurologist emphasizes the healing qualities of such spaces, on a psychological and on a physiological level. He doesn’t fail to mention how necessary such spaces were to his own creative mind, as a writer (something Virginia Woolf knew, too).

The calm that gardens induce, the way they fill us with vigor; these are qualities indispensable to collective and personal health, according to Sacks. He reported on several cases of patients with disorders whose contact with the natural environment miraculously alleviated or reduced their symptoms, in some cases more forcefully than drugs. A patient with Tourette’s syndrome, affected by severe verbal and gestural tics, had his symptoms disappear in the middle of a desert trek. A woman with Parkinson’s could only move her body normally while in a garden. Patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s who’d forgotten how to do almost every daily task, suddenly remembered everything when they were in front of a bed of flowers.

In his essay, Sacks explains that nature seems to have not just calming effects, but it organizes the human brain, too. This was something Sacks always found inexplicable. It was these mysteries, precisely, those of the human mind and those of nature, which made him live and write as he did, full of passion, and always moved by a deep, loving feeling:

Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.

Image: Public domain

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