Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lions, Tigers, and Chaos...Oh my!

I am currently in Brooklyn for a medical residency interview at Methodist Hospital.  Most people would use the word "chaos" to describe the landscape of New York City.  Our definition of chaos seems suitable for the scenes that I encountered while walking through Brooklyn this week.  There is, indeed, a great deal of noise, people, cars, blinking signs, and odors.   Many cite this chaos as a reason to stay away from big cities.  But is a city truly chaotic?  After all, the city streets of New York are pretty darned organized, don't you think?

In this post, I want to accomplish two things: 
1) convince you that true chaos is found in nature  
2) encourage you to prioritize time in the woods because this chaos is good for you

~ ~ ~
“Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.” 
― Henry Adams, "The Education of Henry Adams"
~ ~ ~

While we tend to characterize New York City as chaotic, it's actually quite organized.  The simplest way to describe this is by looking at right angles.  Our lives revolve around right angles, especially in large cities.  We sleep in rectangular beds.  We drive to and from work
Definitely no right angles here...
(photo courtesy of Aly Owyang)
peering through rectangular windshields.  We work in rectangular buildings at sharply right-angled desks.  Our computer screens, phones, fax machine touch screens, keyboards, keyboard buttons, elevators, briefcases, and business cards hold their shape by four right angles.  If you take the stairs, both your feet and hands are in contact with materials formed to the shape of right angles. Pass under the right angles of any door frame in your house, and you'll find right angles everywhere!

On the other hand, when you turn to nature, you will measure exactly zero 90 degree angles.  This has long been an intellectual point of discussion, but it only occurred to me more recently as potentially having a detrimental influence on our health.  At the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium, Nassim Taleb lectured on the virtues of chaos.  He invited the question: If you preach constantly varied workouts, shouldn't you be eating a constantly varied diet at varied times of the day?  Furthermore, if your body responds well to varied workouts and diets, is it reasonable to assume that you would also respond positively to some variability in your environment?

Nassim Taleb's talk at AHS13 
(audio only until AHS posts the vids online)

As I toured the hospital with this re-framed concept of chaos, it occurred to me how organized it was despite our perception that it was chaotic.  The hustle and bustle of a high-volume hospital can definitely lead to sensory overload, which is why it feels so good to just lay in bed at the end of the day with no interruption.  The calm feels incredible after a long, busy day of delivering babies. Unfortunately, I feel that this sense of calm is limited by our confinement to an organized life of right angles.  

Prospect Park, Brooklyn
After my interview, I left the rectangular hospital and walked the perfectly leveled streets avoiding the cracks separating perfectly square blocks of cement comprising the sidewalk. After ten minutes of walking, I came across Prospect Park.  It's not nearly on scale with its Central counterpart, but it was large enough that I felt removed from the city.  I carefully examined the trees, leaves, blades of grass, flow of the pond water, and movement of the ducks.  This was chaos in its truest sense. The woods seem to have some restorative quality, and I attribute this to chaos.  Your body craves it, and nature delivers.

The confines of our angular environment may be contributing to a background level of stress while simultaneously stifling creativity.  Marc Berman and his colleagues at the University of Michigan have studied this concept of chaos in nature.  They found that cognitive function and focus improved dramatically when individuals were exposed to natural environments, including even pictures of natural elements.  Richard Ryan also found that exposure to nature influenced subjects to be more generous and to seek a stronger connection to others.  (Maybe this is why people in NYC avoid eye contact and small talk.  Seriously...what gives?)  In addition, several interesting studies (1, 2, and 3) have shown that immersion into or even just digital exposure to nature improves healing time post-surgery as well as reduces stress in general.

Richard Ryan, PhD

As I walked through Prospect Park, I touched the trees, crinkled handfuls of leaves, and smelled any flowers that I found.  I spent more time than usual watching the ducks, trying to pick up on a pattern to their movement.  There was no pattern, of course.  They aren't confined to city blocks built at right angles, and they don't see the world through square digital displays.  It was refreshing.
The chaos of Prospect Park

We all know that it feels great to tromp through the woods once in a while, yet we don't put nature higher up on our list of priorities.  I encourage you to take some time once per week to get outside.  Leave your phone at home; you don't need it. Twitter will be there when you get back.  Instead of rushing the dog to the end of the block and back, jump in the car and head to the park.  It's not too cold, you sissy.  Put that ugly scarf that your Aunt Alice bought you for Easter (?) to use.  Splash around in the streams. Crunch of handful of those beautiful leaves and take a big whiff.  Let your mind enjoy just a few minutes of reprieve from the organization of city life.

As for me, this coffee shop feels too angular.  Before it gets dark, I'm heading back to the park for a little chaos...

Nathan Riley is a 2014 MD candidate at Temple University School of Medicine.  He writes about food, movement, sleep, relationships, and stress in order to bridge the gap between his patients and evolutionary theory and clinical evidence. You call follow him on Twitter @BeyondtheMD.  He can be reached at  You can also connect with him on Google+. .

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