What if you weren’t at your desk today, or checking your phone at the grocery store or in the bathroom or whatever? What if, instead, you were in a forest? It’s green and placid, and it has that earthy, fresh forest smell to it. You’d feel a lot calmer, right? Well, good news: You can achieve that level of calm without ever going out in actual nature, with the help of your nose.
An immunologist in Japan named Qing Li has been working for years to show that you can get a bunch of the benefits of nature without actually going there. Really, all you need to do is smell trees.
Studies had shown that nature visits reduce stress on the nervous system, overloaded as it is in the modern urban environment with its dense living conditions, industrial-grade fumes, and honking horns. Li’s early work showed that walks in the woods boosted natural killer immune cells that helped fight infection and cancer; eventually, he came to suspect that it was the natural scents of evergreens and other trees that did the bulk of the work.
So now Li is trying to prove that. He puts his research subjects in hotel rooms and allows some of them to smell cypress scents. Turns out that the people who get to smell trees are less stressed and have greater immune cell activity than the people just stuck in hotel rooms. They call this “forest therapy” or “forest bathing,” and we imagine it will come in handy when we need to move to Mars, where there are no trees.