July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
Hanif Sadr I lost my parents when I was so young, like at the age of like, six and seven. And I was raised by my grandparents. So, my grandparents are from Northern Iran, but they used to live in Tehran, the capital of Iran. Normally Iranian people are, they used to leave a semi-nomadic life, which means they had two different lands, one close to the seashores, and one up in the mountains to live.
And they would change these places for the colder time of the year and the hot summers, they would go up in the mountains. So, my grandparents were the only one still in the family that they wanted to continue that tradition. So they would like kind of pack everything up and they would drive six or seven hours, exactly about the whole month of August, up in the mountains and stay in the farm.
By that time the farm didn’t even have electricity and we would go there and stay for a month there, me and my sister. So, spending a whole month in nature and being away from the city and spending time with the villagers, with the kids from the village and spending hours in the nature, being active on like hunting and the gathering and like, you know, collecting ingredients.
I think it was really a healing process for me and my sister.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner and this is The Science of Happiness. When we think about happiness and health, our Western view tends to look inwards as if happiness is found within our minds and bodies, but very often, happiness also involves looking outwards at our relationships with other people, the communities that surround us, and our environment.
This is ground truth about happiness in the indigenous traditions of Mesoamerica in North America. And even for writers like Thoreau, Carson, and Emerson, that happiness is found in our relationship to the environment. Hanif Sadr is an Iranian immigrant who moved to California almost a decade ago to study engineering.
When he arrived in the San Francisco Bay area, Hanif found that many of the foods he had foraged for in Northern Iran as a child are found here in Northern California. Hanif now uses those wild ingredients to make traditional Iranian food at Komaaj, his San Francisco restaurant. And he joins us today to talk about what keeps bringing him back to foraging.
Hanif, thanks for joining us today.
Hanif Sadr Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure.
Dacher Keltner I’m really curious about your first experiences of foraging that now have led you to abandon engineering and develop this restaurant. What got you foraging?
Hanif Sadr In Iran, you know, when we used to forage, we didn’t know, even the word exists.
And as a kids, uh, what we used to do every day was to, you know, go around in a farm that we have with other villagers kids and their habits actually was to just, you know, spend, I don’t know, eight, ten hours in nature every day from the hunting insects to picking berries and finding like leaves that you can just chew on.
Dacher Keltner We know from research on a lot of indigenous peoples that, you know, when you go foraging as a child and then as an adult with your community, you are learning a way of life. Right? You’re learning about spirituality or your relationship to land, values, patterns in nature. What do you think it taught you as a young kid, thinking about it now?
Hanif Sadr I wasn’t aware of it for sure. I wasn’t really understanding how that period of time really affected me and my sister and helped us to be, you know, to feel calmness and to make a connection with the moment, and don’t think about what happened in the past. So I really think that probably even my grandparents, they were educated, my grandfather was a doctor, but I don’t think they were like doing that for the specific reason that like, you know, healing us or like yeah. But it was what naturally happened for us. So yeah, there are some moments when I feel a lot of pressure. I just go back for a second to the farm and to those days and thinking about the moment of like, you know, swimming in the river, or like picking the fruit or like running all over the hills.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. There’s this longstanding research tradition of discovering how nature heals. And as you were saying, Hanif, I have to say we just, we literally just published a study from our lab with Virginia Sturm that, you know, if you just go out and walk and look for, and kind of forage in your daily, walks out in nature and parks and so forth and look for some awe it heals anxiety.
So it’s good to hear you talk about that. What got you back to foraging?
Hanif Sadr I found a job as an outdoor school teacher.
Dacher Keltner Wow.
Hanif Sadr When I was like taking kids to hikes, I started seeing all the familiar ingredients.
Dacher Keltner Like what?
Hanif Sadr Like the blackberries and Persian hogweed and like sour plums, and wild mint and wild, like sorrel, all these things that I knew from my childhood, from our farm, they were all there in a matter of that summer of 2013. You know, I had to take the kids to the hike up in the park every week. And you know, every time I was finding the ingredients that I had known before from our farm in Northern Iran. So, I started foraging those just as a hobby. So yeah, that’s where it started here.
Dacher Keltner I grew up part of my time near the UCLA campus, where my mom got her Ph.D. and there were eucalyptus trees and I, and they had, they have such a great fragrance and then I moved away from them and I didn’t, you know, I didn’t think about it. And then when I went to college at UC Santa Barbara, there are all these eucalyptus trees, and the fragrance kind of brought me back to childhood. And what was it like for you to find the hogweed and the sour plums and the mint and so forth that, you know, you found in Northern California, but was from your childhood in Iran?
Hanif Sadr Blackberries or let’s say even sometimes plums are more, very common ingredients. But when I found the Persian hogweed was really a turning point for me. I couldn’t even believe that the plant is right in front of me the first time I was like, oh, really, it’s here?!
And I think it was really, even that moment and that plan really helped me to, to connect more with the nature here and to feel more home. Like, as you said, like when I, when I smelled it, I touched and I was like, Oh yeah, exactly tastes the same. It smells the same. It was really opened up like the whole idea of like, you know, accepting this nature of Bay Area as my new home.
So yeah, finding the Persian hogweed on the hills of Berkeley was really a turning point for me.
Dacher Keltner We know that tastes now are part of a region of your brain called the insular cortex, where our early memories are in part stored. How do you think about, like, taste and scent taking you back home? What’s that like for you?
Hanif Sadr I think taste and smell both works almost the same for me. I make as an example of a specific stew, and then at some point when I eat that recipe, dish, sometimes it’s like, it’s like a sudden, a quick trip back to Northern Iran in my mind. So then I feel like, okay, this, this is right. And we can serve it.
And it’s not just about like, yeah, that was like exactly how my, what my grandma used to make. It’s just more about like how it feels like, you know, the, the whole flavor combination in your mouth, it reminds you of some specific time and place and you feel like, okay, if the flavor here works because of this time and place that we are in now, means the recipe’s working.
And it means, like, definitely the flavor is a bit different from what I had in Northern Iran because that flavor comes from the ingredients from that place and was cooked in that specific timeframe. But the same experience happens. It’s a bit, I guess, connected to your emotions. When everything clicks, and the flavor works.
It connects you to the past, but it’s still it’s its own flavor profile and from the present moment.
I’m so inspired by a chef in Copenhagen, his name is René Redzepi. He’s been talking about the sense of time and place in food or about what you cook. When I heard it, it really made a lot of sense to me.
And one of the only activities that nowadays that I do that really helped me to try to connect to the moment is when I wander around the hills and try to find new ingredients. Or even just, just a casual walk on my way back, I can pick up a couple of like, you know, blackberries and, and eat it right away.
I think it really helps me to stay sane and then really connect to the moment. I mean, it’s an activity that doesn’t need a lot of exercise to help you be in the moment it’s already will lead you to be in the moment.
Dacher Keltner There’s this early science on the benefits of being outdoors in nature. And then there’s a lot of really exciting work in South Korea and Japan now that is showing that specific tastes and fragrances, you know, from flowers or trees calms the heart reduces cortisol the stress hormone.
And so that really maps onto what you’re talking about and what I sense of, you know, just finding peace out there. It’s really striking.
Hanif Sadr Yeah, it is. It is.
Dacher Keltner Well, Hanif, I wanted to thank you for all your amazing work and thanks for really educating us about the power of foraging.
Hanif Sadr It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me to your amazing program. I’m so happy to chat with you
Dacher Keltner Since this episode is about foraging, a friendly reminder that you can’t just do it anywhere. State and local governments have their own rules, like here in California, where we produce the show, it’s prohibited on state-owned lands. So please do your research first.
Dacher Keltner There’s a good reason we’re drawn to activities like foraging. We’ve done it for thousands of years.
David Strayer We were essentially hunter and gatherers and our brains are essentially the same for the last hundred thousand years. We’ve created all this technology, but our brains haven’t changed.
Dacher Keltner That’s psychologist, David Strayer, our senior producer Shuka Kalantari spoke with him about what getting out into nature can do for our brains and how that can make us more creative. More after this break.
Shuka Kalantari Hi, I’m Shuka Kalantari, senior producer of the Science of Happiness. After listening to Dacher’s interview with Hanif Sadr, I wondered why does being out in nature makes us feel so good?
David Strayer We were really tied to nature until, you know, just hundreds of years ago, really. And our modern existence is really quite radically different from that.
Shuka Kalantari I spoke with David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah to get a better understanding of what’s happening to our brains when we spend time in nature and how that affects creativity.
David Strayer Our brains he’s really evolved to be involved in things like gathering and foraging. And that involves kind of being more connected to nature. You have to look and pay attention to the foliage, the trees, what you’re trying to basically forage for, and to kind of be in the moment.
Shuka Kalantari In one of your TED talks, you discussed how the average North American spends about 10 hours a day on some form of a screen and about 30 minutes outdoors. Can you just reflect on that a bit and how that affects kind of our sense of being?
David Strayer When you rest, your mind wanders, you walk out on a hike, just even a short hike in a park. If you do it long enough, you, uh, oftentimes see these big rebounds where people actually start to think more clearly and more crisply. Now, what happens in the brain? We’re starting to try and measure that, but we’re just starting to scratch the surface.
Shuka Kalantari So what are we saying is we scratched the surface?
David Strayer So, let’s start with what happens when you’re, you know, attentively looking at a screen or paying attention. You’re probably concentrating and using one of the attentional networks in the brain, the executive attentional networks that rely heavily on the prefrontal cortex.
Shuka Kalantari Strayer says this part of the brain is really important for things like problem-solving, decision-making, and planning.
David Strayer And what we’re seeing is that you can overtax those parts of the brain. You use up the mental reserves, that power, that prefrontal cortex.
Shuka Kalantari But when we’re in nature, other parts of our brain get activated, which gives the prefrontal cortex a break.
David Strayer And what happens is your prefrontal cortex has a chance to rejuvenate and rejuvenate by doing things like replacing the glucose and glycogen energy reserves so that when you come back after having taken a walk or kind of rested for a little bit, you just have more mental energy to be able to allocate when you’re trying to attack a problem.
Shuka Kalantari So essentially a lot of the same benefits as mindful meditation?
David Strayer It seems that there’s a lot of overlap and some of the brain imaging studies have found that very similar kinds of patterns occur. So one of the things that’s a little different about some kinds of meditation is you’re still kind of trying to concentrate on one thought versus when you’re in nature a lot of times you can watch the waves come in. You can watch a river flow by, the leaves, rustling in the trees. They capture your attention when something’s moving, but it’s a gentle capture and you just can kind of just be kind of drawn into that gentle movement. And so the brain starts to just relax and just kind of be kind of effectively soothed by that soft fascination, allowing the cognitive control networks to replenish.
Shuka Kalantari It takes the brain some time to fully relax though. Professor Strayer calls it “The Three-Day Syndrome.”
David Strayer The first day, you’re still kind of wound up by going out and getting your, unpacking your car and getting all your gear, and so forth. The next day, you start to kind of recalibrate a little bit and some kind of like magic thing happens by the third day. It’s probably a continual process, but it kind of totally clicks in. And my experience was that I’m part of nature. I’m not separate from it.
Shuka Kalantari Strayer wanted to see how others experienced this extended time in nature as well, and how that affected their creativity. He and his team got 56 adults to go out into the wilderness on backpacking trips.
They all took a creativity test right beforehand. Then, again, a few days into the trip. The backpackers scored 50% higher on the creativity test after spending four days in nature, disconnected from technology.
David Strayer We do see boosts in creative reasoning. That goes hand in hand with a lot of people who talk about, wow, I hit a wall and I just had to get up from my computer for a little bit. I went for a little bit of a walk and then boom, the solution kind of came to mind. Things kind of crystallized in an interesting way. I saw things from a new frame and that’s kind of in line with what we know is important for creative thinking.
If you go back to kind of more of a, in-nature, immersed in it, interacting with it. And connecting to it, that kind of probably speaks more to our evolutionary history and the way our brains are really wired.
Dacher Keltner Thanks, Shuka. In our next episode, comedian, Chris Duffy also gets out into nature to try practice called the awe walk, but instead of walking, he swims.
Chris Duffy Okay. Diving in now.
Oh, baby, that feels cold.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX, our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP audio. Our associate producer is Haley Gray. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh.
Do you feel like you’re at a crossroads in life, searching for a new purpose? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com. Or use the hashtag #happinesspod.