Image by Daniel Hodgkins

Brains, Trees and Creativity

I am a neurodivergent creativeI want to talk to you about the two things in life that have had the most impact on my creativity. 

The first was finding out that I am autistic. I was in my early 30s when I was diagnosed. My son was about six or seven and also being assessed, which had led me to do lots of research online. During this time came the lightbulb moment when I read about how autistic girls and women (or non-binary people) present differently, and also that autism can be very different in adults than in young children because of, you know, growing up. 

Only a few years before, I had still been at university (my third attempt!) studying Creative Writing, and feeling absolutely lost and stunted from a creative perspective. I was churning out work that got me good enough marks, but I remember feeling that I hadn’t found my real voice. I didn’t know at the time that there was a reason why I felt different and confused.

Because when you go through the education system, no one teaches you about neurodiversity, despite how common neurodivergence is. To be neurodivergent means you have a brain that differs from the ‘norm’. Sometimes when people talk about neurodiversity, they include everyone who was born with a different ‘operating platform’, like autistic people and those with ADHD and those who have acquired conditions such as OCD, Tourette’s, schizophrenia or other mental health conditions along the way. Primarily though, if someone says they are neurodivergent, they are most likely to be saying they belong to the former group.

The Neurodiversity Movement is currently gaining steam online and in real life. Autistic people like myself assert that there is nothing inherently wrong with us, we just experience the world differently, more intensely. The Neurodiversity Paradigm is often misunderstood. We are not attempting to ‘make being autistic cool’ and ignoring other autistics who are perceived by neurotypicals to be ‘more severe’ (this perceived ‘low-functioning’ is often due to co-occurring intellectual impairment and the fact that neurotypicals place their own preference for verbal communication at the top of an imaginary hierarchy of communication methods.) 

In fact, being neurodivergent certainly doesn’t feel ‘cool’ a lot of the time. Living in a neuronormative society that expects everyone to be able to do the same things in the same way can be extremely disabling, frustrating and exhausting. And if we are to be able to thrive, we have to first learn to say ‘no’ to meeting the thousand-and-one expectations of our society, and then eke out our own ways of doing things. 

I like talking to creative audiences about neurodiversity as I find that many artists, writers and similarly creative types do not see themselves as neurotypical. ‘I am a divergent thinker,’ is one that I commonly hear. They often experience and see the world differently to others, with alternative perspectives and a desire to express them in new and unconventional ways. 

However sometimes these same people who say that they are definitely not neurotypical have not really considered that they may be autistic or belong to any other minority neurological group. This is not surprising at all, given that the medical establishment and mainstream media seem to be doing their absolute best to uphold as many false stereotypes about neurodiversity as possible. 

Autistic people cannot understand jokes, have no imagination, have no ability to empathise… the list  of myths goes on. When we consider that many great creative people have been autistic, including Sir Anthony Hopkins and probably Andy Warhol, we begin to see that none of it makes sense.

I could write a whole article just on the misinformation about autism and ADHD; of course there isn’t the space here. But if you suspect that neurodivergence could be the missing piece of self-knowledge that you have been waiting for, the best thing to do is to read or watch things created by #actuallyautistic or other neurodivergent people, not the self-appointed ‘experts’ who are doing a pretty poor job at telling us what is going on in our own heads. 

For me, understanding why I had never fit in with the crowd meant I was able to cast a more critical and insightful eye over my own life experiences and the way this capitalist, patriarchal, imperialist culture views and treats people like me who don’t hold as much ‘value’ because we aren’t productive in the way that helps prop up the status quo. 

Seeing this and having to work doubly hard to make a living outside of the standard narratives, can be quite empowering, but also overwhelming. Neurodivergents are prone to intense and frequent burnouts from all the extra brain activity we have going on. We process huge amounts of sensory information that our brains can’t filter out and social/communication activities require increased focus and effort. We have uneven attention spans, able to hyperfocus for long periods on things of interest, but struggle with distraction when it comes to other tasks. 

These are some of the reasons I decided to retrain to work in nature. Nature has a huge impact on my wellbeing, emotional regulation and my ability to concentrate and come up with new ideas. It gives me a valuable opportunity for connection with the wider web of life without having to carry out the draining task of talking to other people. When my brain feels like it has got ‘too full’ and I need to pull the plug, reconnecting with nature does the trick like nothing else. 

There is a lot of evidence to back this up. A study published in 2020 showed that spending time in nature increased creativity in a group of adults by 27.74%.1 Another study that assessed the impact of green time on a group of university students with ADHD demonstrated an increase in cognitive performance, improvement of perceived ADHD symptoms and greater feeling of cognitive restoration.2 These constitute just a tiny fraction of the research that has been done in recent decades since Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Bathing, first took off in Japan as a popular wellness practice. 

And we know that really slowing down, noticing everything around us, using all of our senses, interacting with nature, is far more beneficial than just a quick walk through the park with the dog. 

Kaplan and Kaplan originally developed and popularised their Attention Restoration Theory in the 1980s and 90s, which hypothesised that following long periods of concentration, nature has the capacity to help the mind switch to a different type of attention, allowing the fatigued parts of the brain to rest and recharge. One of the elements of the theory is a concept called ‘soft fascination.’ This means allowing your attention to be effortlessly captured by elements of nature. One way of trying this is simply to notice ‘what moves’. This might begin with a bird flying overhead, or a flower bending in the breeze, but then something about the thing might interest you further, like the centre of the flower, or taking in its scent. 

Another key component of Attention Restoration Theory is ‘being away’. Although it can help to be physically away from your habitual places, it can be enough to simply create the feeling of being somewhere else. So, although you could jump on a bus and get to Dulwich Woods for a full woodland atmosphere (something I recommend!), sitting beneath the magnificent plane tree in Windrush Square and losing yourself in the leaves above for ten minutes, noticing their colour, shape, movement, the light glinting through, could make you feel like you have visited somewhere else for a time. Or 20 minutes of lying on the grass in a park, cloud watching at lunchtime, noticing the feeling of the earth supporting your weight and the air touching your skin, gives time to unwind, resetting your brain before you take on the rest of the day. 

With a busy city lifestyle, giving yourself micro-breaks like this can really be of benefit. But also, to reclaim time with nature, to declare neurodivergence, these are types of rebellion. Slowly, quietly, they can fuel a collective protest that society as it is, works against our wellbeing and it seeks to subtly censor voices that want to stand up for something better. We need more people who feel a deeper connection to nature and therefore care more about protecting it. We need more people who aren’t afraid to speak up and say that we are dissatisfied with being forced into boxes and being made to live in ways that our detrimental to our mental and physical health.  

So yes, I have a vested interest in writing this. If an introvert in Cheshire can get a message like this directly into a strongly creative community within the capital city, I can then pass the baton along and hope that nature-loving neurodivergents will grow even stronger in voice and number. Getting in touch with our own true nature and the nature all around us can improve our mental health and stoke our creativity, but it is even better to engage in a reciprocal relationship by speaking up for a better world that is kinder to all types of beings, including us humans. What truly benefits one of us, benefits all of us. Nature has taught me that we are all interconnected, and so when I say I am far from Brixton, perhaps I am much more closely intertwined with your community than geography would suggest. Happy nature bathing!

1 Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, Beyond restorative benefits: Evaluating the effect of forest therapy on creativity, Chia-Pin (Simon) Yu, Hsuan Hsieh, 2020.

2 Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Exposure to Nature in College Students, Thal. L, 2014.


Shell Parsons is a new writer in her own made-up niche of Neurodiversity & Nature Connection. She believes both things, along with imagination, have an essential part to play in getting out of this big mess we find ourselves in. 

She is currently creating an online pilot nature therapy programme for recently diagnosed or self-identified neurodivergents as part of her CPD.

www.shellparsons.com

Follow Shell on instagram: @neurodivergentinnature

We all want to make it.
Make it in our chosen career. Maybe make it big.

Sometimes perhaps just make it to pay day.
But whatever our ambition, what unites us all is the desire to thrive, be recognised – and be supported.
And that’s what Lambeth’s Creative Enterprise Zone is all about. Supporting creative people to do amazing creative things without having to leave our amazingly creative corner of south London.
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