Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Oliver Sacks: Why We Need Gardens

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.

As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. 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.

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

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.


Oliver Wolf Sacks (1933 – 2015) was a British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author. Born in Britain, and mostly educated there, he spent his career in the United States. He believed that the brain is the “most incredible thing in the universe.” He became widely known for writing best-selling case histories about both his patients’ and his own disorders and unusual experiences, with some of his books adapted for plays by major playwrights, feature films, animated short films, opera, dance, fine art, and musical works in the classical genre. [Wikipedia]

Copyright 2020 Oliver Sacks. From Everything in its Place by Oliver Sacks, quoted in BrainPickings by Maria Popova.

Oliver Sacks at the New York Botanical Garden. (Photograph by Bill Hayes from How New York Breaks Your Heart.)

5 comments on “Oliver Sacks: Why We Need Gardens

  1. Barbara Huntington
    May 10, 2020

    And so I garden or rather I pull a few weeds but embrace my garden in its wildness

    Liked by 1 person

  2. intellectualfreedom
    May 10, 2020

    Thank you for such meaningful posts. I do appreciate being able to return to your blog to revisit posts organized by the categories of interests shared.

    In a world so heavily inundated with fragmented information, your blog is a pleasure to read and has often been a grounding and life affirming influence.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sally Bliumis-Dunn
    May 10, 2020

    I totally agree and am so grateful for the natural world’s ealing power. I have been growing hydroponic lettuce and the bright green is so healing!

    Liked by 1 person

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