I first got interested in naturalist intelligence because one of my big goals in life is to become the best possible human I can be.
After many years studying nature, an important thing I’ve learned is that being a well-rounded naturalist isn’t just one skill.
Naturalist intelligence is all about using the human brain to engage sensory awareness and observe patterns in living systems (like plants, trees, ecosystems, wildlife, etc).
People who have the traits of naturalist intelligence are highly skilled at understanding the environment because they apply several complimentary skills together as one.
The cool thing is when you develop all these skills together, it enables your naturalist intelligence abilities to grow much faster & more deeply.
Naturalist intelligence can be identified and nurtured to make us better teachers and learners both in the forest and beyond.
Naturalists are uniquely gifted to caring for environmental health and noticing subtle patterns that most people don’t see.
So today I’d like to share 9 essential skills of naturalist intelligence.
This list will help you identify and develop your own naturalist traits, as well as your students if you’re an educator!
Observation is possibly the most fundamental skill of naturalist intelligence.
If we really look at what gifted naturalists are better at than anybody else, it’s the simple ability to sit quietly, watch, listen & become aware of what’s happening around you.
Most people have absolutely horrible observation skills, but it’s simply because our education system doesn’t take time to train this ability.
Yet this really is one of the hallmarks of genius in all areas of life.
The more you’re able to see what’s in front of you and notice things that others miss, the easier it is for you to contribute your talents and gifts to the world.
Luckily, anyone can improve their observation skills simply by applying and using your awareness to consciously acknowledge what’s happening in nature.
Every time you step outside there are literally thousands of things you could observe just by making a simple commitment to open your eyes.
Ask yourself questions like: What can I observe right now?
Make notes of what’s happening around you… then ask yourself: What else can I observe about these things?
Keep diving deeper and you’ll amaze yourself by the depth of observation that’s possible (even if you don’t yet know the names of plants, birds, trees, etc).
Observation is one of the greatest signs of intelligence because it means you’re using your brain to capture information and make sense of your surroundings.
If you’re a teacher, you can include observation skills in your outdoor activities by having students describe what they’re observing about nature in detail.
Start by giving them a challenge to find a bird or animal and watch it for a few minutes.
You can give them awareness questions to prompt closer investigation like:
- Where is it located?
- What is it doing?
- Is it alone or with others?
- Is it making any sounds?
- Where does it go?
- What kinds of markings and identification features does it have?
Nature is the ideal training ground for observation skills because there are so many sights, sounds and activities happening all the time.
Plus: The more you practice observation in nature, the more observant you’ll become during non nature focused activities.
2. Pattern Recognition
Pattern recognition is the ability to distill consistencies and repeating themes in the things you observe outside.
This is similar to observation, but pattern recognition is a bit more sophisticated.
It’s kind of like taking your observation skills to the next level…
As you practice observing nature, pretty soon you’ll begin to notice actual patterns in the trees, plants, birds, seasons, etc.
This is one of the hallmarks of someone who really has naturalist intelligence going because the things you observe outside are no longer a jumble of disconnected elements.
Nature is an interconnected ecosystem that’s very delicately balanced.
Everything is connected to everything else, and the real magic happens when you can witness these connections for yourself by recognizing patterns.
Maybe you notice there’s a south facing hill during late winter that gets little yellow flowers many weeks before anywhere else… Well that’s a pattern!
Maybe one day you notice bird activity is at it’s peak between 9 & 10 am… then a few days later it shifts to being at 11am. This is also a pattern.
Through patterns of animal tracking & bird language, you’ll discover that a fox moving in the forest has an actual effect on nearby birds, plants & animals that can be read and understood like a book.
Even wind and weather patterns can be read just by watching & paying close attention.
Eventually, you’ll even begin to identify patterns in your own behavior, emotions & relationships that enables you to apply your naturalist intelligence in order to improve other areas of your life.
These are all different types of pattern recognition, and the list just goes on and on.
In order to identify patterns, all you have to do is make some basic observations, then ask yourself: What is this telling me?
- What are those clouds telling me?
- What are those trees telling me?
- What are those birds telling me?
Some people are naturally gifted at recognizing patterns in nature, but I really think it mostly has to do with practice and exposure.
When I first started developing this skill for myself, I found it quite shocking that this kind of training isn’t included in most public education.
But anyone can do this, and it really will improve your ability to recognize patterns in all areas of life!
Just keep asking yourself: What is this telling me? And watch your naturalist intelligence grow!
3. Sensory Awareness
One of my favorite skills that develops to an incredible depth with naturalists is sensory awareness.
Have you ever really thought about how significant your sensory awareness ability is?
The five senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting) are the ONLY direct way to get information from the outside of your brain to what’s inside your brain.
Yet when was the last time you consciously applied your 5 senses in order to learn about your surroundings?
For most people, the answer is probably NEVER!
Over the years, our society has gradually become less and less connected with our senses.
Humans have become more and more dependant on computer screens, video games and abstract conceptual frameworks.
But video games & indoor activities just don’t stimulate the sensory parts of your brain the way nature does.
In fact, most people are walking around with blinders on… to the point where they sometimes fall off cliffs looking for Pokemon on their phone!
But if you ever meet someone who really has a gift for watching or listening deeply… it’s clear they’re tapped into something truly remarkable.
If you’d like to increase your sensory awareness, simply go outside and ask yourself these questions:
- What can I see right now that I’ve never seen before?
- What can I hear right now that I’ve never listened to before?
- What can I feel or smell?
- What opportunities are here for me to practice watching & listening deeply?
Take all the worlds best communicators, leaders, artists, musicians, doctors & scientists… a big part of what makes them so effective is they way they use their senses.
So come to your senses!
One of the best things about being a naturalist is you get to have moments of empathy with cool animals.
Simply by watching birds, squirrels & other wildlife engage in their lives, you get to witness life and death happening right before your eyes.
These moments of closeness to the struggles of wild animals will give you a real sense for the preciousness of life.
You learn to get out of your own head and see things from other perspectives, which is absolutely essential for understanding what others are thinking and feeling.
Closeness with nature & particularly living animals will engage your emotions so you can develop emotional intelligence & empathy.
Empathy is quickly becoming one of the most important skills for effective leadership and success in the modern world.
Much of the work that used to emphasize technical skills is now being given over to robots who do repetitive tasks much better than people.
At the same time, it’s now more important than ever for people to really relate and understand each other so we can communicate better.
If you’d like to develop your own empathy skills, simply find an animal to watch for a few minutes and ask yourself:
- What is this animal doing and why?
- What is this animal feeling?
- What is this animal communicating?
- What are this animal’s goals & struggles?
It might seem like a simple activity, but I’ve seen many times how nature opens up the sensitivity wiring in the brain and causes people to feel more strongly what others are feeling.
The more you can do this with animals, the easier it will be to do this with people.
5. Mental Clarity
Mental clarity is another extremely important skill that comes from having an active naturalist intelligence.
Have you ever noticed that simply being in nature can help a busy mind to settle down and operate more effectively?
Most people lead lives that are way too fast paced for their own good. Their thoughts become jumbled and scattered, which leads to feelings of anxiety & stress.
Naturalists are often particularly sensitive to this mental overwhelm, and become drawn to spending time outside as a way to restore a more calm and creative state of mind.
One of my close friends who is very naturally gifted in naturalist intelligence once told me that staring at the bark of a tree is like hitting the reset button.
She finds time every day to go outside and unwind by watching birds or looking at the plant growth.
It seems like a such a simple routine, but it really enables her to come back with renewed energy and openness.
The ability to just be present and sit quietly in expanded awareness is something that all people in the modern world desperately need.
You can exercise this skill by doing sensory awareness activities in nature.
If you ever find yourself rushing to reach a destination, try slowing down!
- Notice what it feels like when you’re pushing yourself towards deadlines.
- Then go outside and do everything at half the speed you normally do.
- Go for a comfortable stroll, or even find a nice place to sit down, close your eyes and listen to the birds for 10 minutes.
A lot of people make the mistake of trying to identify mental clarity by paying attention to their thoughts.
Instead, just look for a feeling of peaceful relaxation and trust that when you feel at peace, it means your mind is quiet.
I guarantee that as you exercise the mental clarity skill of naturalist intelligence, the benefits will be felt in all areas of life.
6. Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is essential for naturalist intelligence because it enables you to piece together a complete ecological story.
Every time you observe something in nature, there are tons of amazing lessons and insights to be gained, but only if you know how to think critically!
Some of those lessons are instantly obvious, while others are much more subtle and require a bit of reflection to reveal.
For example, let’s say one day you see a fox outside your home, and it makes a strange barking sound.
The surface level observation is “Hey, there’s a fox over there! Super cool. Wow check out his fluffy tail”
But then beyond that initial sighting, there’s all kinds of deeper implications…
There are invisible things you can now predict that you wouldn’t otherwise know without having seen that fox.
To find those you need to ask, “What is this telling me?” Or “What is this telling me that I wouldn’t otherwise know?”
This leads you to consider things like:
- There must be fox habitat nearby. Maybe den sites?
- There must be a food source because foxes need to eat. Maybe voles? Maybe fruit?
- Foxes have tricky relationships with coyotes. What is this fox telling me about the coyotes here?
- What else is this telling me?
- What else could I look for here?
You can follow this line of thought with literally any observation you make outside, and it will develop your critical thinking skills.
This is one of the greatest ways that naturalist intelligence enables your intelligence in other areas.
If you can do it with foxes & weather patterns, then you’ll be able to do it in all areas of life!
7. Curiosity & Investigative Ability
Curiosity is the first step in making new discoveries outside, and it’s a really good sign of intelligence.
Nature is probably the best environment for stimulating curiosity because it’s filled with so many mysteries and questions to explore.
The ability to ask questions that lead to aha moments is an actual skill that can be actively developed through practice.
It starts with a simple observation of whatever is happening in your surroundings.
If you simply open your eyes and look for what makes you curious, you’ll notice yourself becoming curious about that strange looking plant, or wondering where this trail leads.
Then as you begin to investigate your curiosity, you begin to make new discoveries.
You find yourself in a new part of the forest that you didn’t know was there. Or you discover a pair of birds nesting in the backyard shed.
Each new question that you investigate adds more detail to your understanding, which only serves to make you more and more curious.
Before long, you’re making completely original discoveries that no human has ever witnessed before.
If you want to stimulate this skill for yourself, all you have to do is ask yourself – What am I curious about right now?
- Simply scan your environment and look for anything that might catch your eye.
- Then it’s essential to follow that curiosity and look closer!
Take on the mindset that every time you follow your curiosity, you’re making it more likely to become even more curious in the future.
Naturalists were the original scientists, and it’s this same curiosity for understanding nature that leads us to embody an attitude of curiosity in all areas of life.
This teaches you persistence, and the capacity to follow your dreams to new learnings and discoveries about the world, yourself, and other people.
8. Appreciation & Respect For Nature
Some people might not consider something like appreciation and respect to be a sign of intelligence, or even that it’s a skill. But it really is!
Have you ever met someone who just didn’t appreciate all the good things they have?
People who lack feelings of appreciation are very likely to take things for granted, and as a result, they end up doing stupid things that have long term consequences.
The ability to appreciate nature is one of the most important skills required to create a world where humans live in harmony with their environment.
The more you cultivate your ability to appreciate and respect your surroundings, the more likely you’ll stop and consider your actions before you do something mindless.
It’s true that some people are born with a natural sensitivity for animals, nature and living things.
But with practice, anyone can grow feelings of appreciation much more deeply just by focusing on things that make you feel good in nature.
Cultivating this attitude of appreciation is important because it amplifies all the other naturalist intelligence skills we’ve talked about so far.
If you want to observe nature and recognize patterns, it’s so much easier when you are feeling deep appreciation in the process.
Appreciation is an emotional state that clears the mind, enables you to empathize more deeply, and see things with greater clarity.
Just imagine how much easier it is to follow your curiosity and develop your scientific investigation skills when you are loving and appreciating every moment of the process!
I like to think of appreciation as like an activator for the other skills.
If you’d like to grow your own sense of appreciation for nature, simply find a quiet place outside and ask yourself:
- What’s making me happy here?
- What do I appreciate in this moment?
- What am I grateful for?
You’ll find your awareness being drawn to the beauty of flowers & birds singing in the distance… or the feeling of warm sunshine on your skin.
At first you might have to really look to identify things that bring you genuine gratitude and appreciation, but pretty soon it gets easier and easier.
Eventually you’ll be able to find moments of deep appreciation & love for nature in pretty much anything you find outside, whether it’s the busy ants gathering crumbs, or the unique texture of bark on a tree.
Don’t be surprised if you start to enjoy every part of your life a lot more by practicing this one!
9. Care-taking & Stewardship
This is an important one…
Taking care of nature is one of the most important skills that really comes from having naturalist intelligence.
This is because the sensitivity & empathy you cultivate for the environment will make you much more likely to actually care about the future…
And it’s also that your awareness grows to the point where cannot avoid seeing the damaging effects that humans have on the land.
Most people don’t have their eyes open in the forest, so they don’t see the signs of health or stress on the land.
Being a naturalist requires you to use your brain and your mind in a new way, and therefore you learn to see the world differently.
Naturalists are always the first ones to notice when human development is having a damaging effect on sensitive ecosystems.
And they’re also the ones who know how to fix it.
If people don’t have their naturalist intelligence open and functioning, they won’t notice the gradual decline of frog & bird songs in spring.
Then one year, the frogs simply won’t return to the pond because it’s just too polluted.
In a world where people spend less time surrounded by nature, and more time surrounded by computer screens, sometimes dramatic environmental changes can go completely un-noticed.
This is why so much environmental education revolves around describing the behaviors that damage our planet to grow awareness of the problems.
There are a lot of excellent movements using activism to clean up the environment and put pressure to change on companies who use damaging chemicals or pollute the waters.
But there’s a whole other layer of care-taking on a more backyard and neighbourhood level… and it’s a type of land stewardship that everyone can do.
Because naturalists care, they’re much more likely to make conscious decisions about what products to buy, where to get their food, and even how they care for their own backyards and lawns.
Developing naturalist intelligence makes you directly aware of the impact you are personally having on the environment every time you step outside.
It doesn’t mean you have to become a hermit and give up your car & TV.
But it will give you the skills to change your behavior in ways that are more supportive of life rather than ignorantly destructive.
And that’s a really good thing for everyone.
If you’d like to develop your care-taking & stewardship skills, the best place to start is right in your own backyard.
Ask yourself: What can I do to help nature thrive right outside my own home?
- Can you buy your food locally from farmers who prioritize caring for soil & water quality?
- Can you plant some edible herbs & vegetables?
- Can you start a compost pile to process your kitchen scraps?
- How are you caring for your landscaping & lawn?
- Are there more eco friendly ways you can care for your backyard while even creating healthy habitat for birds & beneficial insects?
Caretaking projects are a great way to help nature thrive in your neighbourhood while developing all the other naturalist intelligence skills along the way!
The main thing I want you to takeaway here is that having naturalist intelligence isn’t just a single isolated skill that only a rare few people have.
The human nervous system is actually built by nature for the purpose of hunting and gathering!
By developing your own naturalist intelligence skills, you’ll not only improve your ability to live in harmony with nature, but you will also empower your own success in the human world.
And if you’d like some help on the journey, I created an audio learning program to help you awaken your naturalist intelligence!
James Mengle says
That’s some really good advice. Even if you take only the basics and apply it to the best of your ability, it will make a noticeable difference on your day to day stress levels.
Brian Mertins says
Absolutely James, I love how simple it can be to sit quietly in nature and let the stress wash away. A few minutes outside can completely change a mood and refresh the mind!
Grace Frazier says
Brian, I received so much from this article! Your note, ‘. . . the depth of observation that’s possible,’ reminded me of looking at my neighbor’s flowers with her, listening to her lament their being eaten by some ‘monster’. I immediately spotted a wooly caterpillar at the edge of a low leaf, pointing it out to her. She was surprized, saying she’d never seen any bugs around her plants. Of course, espying the insect wasn’t ‘in depth observation’, but it did highlight the typical person’s lack of observational skills, as you mentioned.
I was amazed at your sentence, that ‘a fox moving in the forest has an actual effect on nearby . . . plants.’ Would never have considered that as a possibility. Would love to learn how that happens!
Your note that ‘ These moments of closeness to the struggles of wild animals will give you a real sense for the preciousness of life.’ This has been growing of late, which is not only fascinating, but treasured.
Your list of reflections:
• ‘What is this animal doing and why?
• What is this animal feeling?
• What is this animal communicating?
• What are this animal’s goals & struggles?’
I so appreciate these questions!
Also, your extrapolation that ‘nature opens up the sensitivity wiring in the brain and causes people to feel more strongly what others are feeling.’ I certainly am counting on this to also generalize to humans.
Wow, to read ‘Before long, you’re making completely original discoveries that no human has ever witnessed before,’ expands the mind with possibilities!
As to ‘appreciation and respect for Nature’, it’s what pulls me outside. Too, it slows me down as I walk about enjoying it all.
Was pleased to read, ‘Just imagine how much easier it is to follow your curiosity and develop your scientific investigation skills when you are loving and appreciating every moment of the process!’ This is experienced every time I go out!
You suggested that ‘Because naturalists care, they’re much more likely to make conscious decisions about what products to buy, where to get their food, and even how they care for their own backyards and lawns.’ This has been a developing aspect of my life since deliberately going out to just enjoy Nature.
And lastly, ‘Ask yourself: What can I do to help nature thrive right outside my own home?
• Can you buy your food locally from farmers who prioritize caring for soil & water quality?
• Can you plant some edible herbs & vegetables?
• Can you start a compost pile to process your kitchen scraps?
• How are you caring for your landscaping & lawn?
• Are there more eco friendly ways you can care for your backyard while even creating healthy habitat for birds & beneficial insects?’
So grateful for these questions, for they help put in words the things I’ve been doing of late: buying food from like-minded farmers; planting herbs and a few vegetables; developing a systematic process for composting; making sure all areas of my gardens are healthy; and creating safe, healthy areas for birds, squirrels, and insects/spiders. The last of these is the plan for an ‘insect hotel’ (very excited about this).