1. Study looks at difference in effect between a walk in the mall or in the park

    November 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences press release:

    Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature — even just a 20-minute walk — together can help family members get along even better.

    The research is based on the attention restoration theory which describes how interaction with natural environments can reduce mental fatigue and restore attentional functioning. Many studies have supported the theory, but most, if not all, previous studies have only looked at the benefits of spending time in nature on an individual’s attention.

    U of I family studies researchers Dina Izenstark and Aaron Ebata believed that if this theory worked for individuals it might also work for families and help to facilitate more positive family interactions and family cohesion. So last year they developed a new theoretical approach to studying the benefits of family-based nature activities.

    “Past research shows that in nature individuals’ attention is restored but we wanted to know, what does that mean for family relationships? In our theoretical model we made the case that when an individual’s attention is restored, they are less irritable, have more self-control, and are able to pick up on social cues more easily. Because of all of those dynamics, we believe they should get along better with other family members,” Izenstark explains.

    In a new study, Izenstark, now an assistant professor at San José State University, and Ebata, an associate professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I, test their theory by looking at sets of moms and daughters (ages 10-12 years) who were asked to take a walk together in nature and a walk in a mall. The researchers then tested both the mothers’ and daughters’ attention and observed their family interactions after each walk.

    The results were clear; a walk in nature increased positive interactions, helping the mothers and daughters get along better. It also restored attention, a significant effect for mothers in the study.

    “We know that both moms and daughters experience mental or attentional fatigue. It’s common especially after a full day of concentrating at work or at school,” Izenstark says. “If you think about our everyday environments, not only are you at work, but maybe your cell phone is constantly buzzing, and you’re getting emails. With all the stimuli in our everyday environments, our attention is taxed more than we realize.”

    Izenstark adds that in order to relieve some of that mental fatigue, people need to restore their directed attention. “In nature, you can relax and restore your attention which is needed to help you concentrate better. It helps your working memory.”

    To test the mothers’ and daughters’ cohesiveness and whether attention was restored, 27 mom/daughter dyads met at a homelike research lab on campus before each walk. For 10 minutes they engaged in attention-fatiguing activities (i.e. solving math problems, word searches) while a recording of loud construction music played in the background. The researchers gave them a “pre-attention” test, and then set them out on a walk — one day to a nature arboretum, and then on another day to a local indoor mall. Each walk was 20 minutes long.

    After returning from each walk, the moms and daughters were interviewed separately. They were given a “post-attention” test, and were surveyed about which location they found the most fun, boring, or interesting. They were then videotaped playing a game that required them to work together.

    For moms, attention was restored significantly after the nature walk. Interestingly, for daughters, attention was restored after both walks, which Izenstark says may be a result of spending family leisure time with their mother.

    “It was unique that for the daughters walking with moms improved their attention. But for the moms, they benefitted from being in a nature setting. It was interesting to find that difference between the family members. But when we looked at their subjective reports of what they felt about the two settings, there was no question, moms and daughters both said the nature setting was more fun, relaxing, and interesting.”

    The last aspect of the findings was in regards to improved cohesion or togetherness in the mom/daughter pairs. After analyzing the videotaped interactions during the game, the researchers only found an effect for nature; after the nature walk, moms and daughters displayed greater dyadic cohesion, a sense of unity, closeness, and the ability to get along, compared to the indoor walk.

    Although the study only focused on mothers and daughters, Izenstark says that the overall aim of the research is to examine different ways in which nature affects family relationships in general.

    “First and foremost I hope it encourages families to find ways to get outside together, and to not feel intimidated, thinking, ‘oh, I have to go outside for an hour or make it a big trip.’ Just a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood before or after eating dinner or finding pockets of time to set aside, to reconnect, not only can benefit families in the moment but a little bit after the activity as well.”


  2. Study looks at perceptions of what nature is

    November 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Washington press release:

    Think, for a moment, about the last time you were out in nature. Were you in a city park? At a campground? On the beach? In the mountains?

    Now consider: What was this place like in your parents’ time? Your grandparents’? In many cases, the parks, beaches and campgrounds of today are surrounded by more development, or are themselves more developed, than they were decades ago.

    But to you, they still feel like nature.

    That’s what University of Washington psychology professor Peter Kahn calls “environmental generational amnesia” — the idea that each generation perceives the environment into which it’s born, no matter how developed, urbanized or polluted, as the norm. And so what each generation comes to think of as “nature” is relative, based on what it’s exposed to.

    In a new paper, which Kahn co-authored with doctoral student Thea Weiss, in the latest issue of Children, Youth and Environments, they argue that more frequent and meaningful interactions with nature can enhance our connection to — and definition of — the natural world.

    “There’s a shifting baseline of what we consider the environment, and as that baseline becomes impoverished, we don’t even see it,” Kahn said. “If we just try to teach people the importance of nature, that’s not going to work. They have to interact with it.”

    For years, Kahn has examined how people perceive and impact the environment. As cities grow and open spaces shrink, it is environmental generational amnesia, Kahn argues, that enables development to continue relentlessly. Each generation inherits a new baseline for what nature is, and what “normal” surroundings are.

    During his early years in academia, Kahn studied children’s concepts of the environment in Houston, one of the largest and most polluted cities in the country. He found that, when children were asked about air pollution, most could explain it and point out other cities that were polluted — but not their own.

    “With each ensuing generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation tends to perceive that degraded condition as the nondegraded condition, as the normal experience,” Kahn and Weiss wrote in their paper.

    Research has linked exposure to the outdoors with physical and mental health benefits, greater ability to focus and communicate with others and an overall improvement in quality of life. At the same time, health conditions connected to sedentary lifestyles, such as diabetes and obesity, are on the rise.

    One solution is to provide opportunities — for children and adults — for encounters with “big nature.” By big, Kahn means wild, in the most traditional sense: old-growth forests, unshackled rivers and untamed species like grizzly bears and native trout.

    But “big nature,” he concedes, is also relative: To a child in a city, playing in a fountain is an experience with a natural element. Kahn said he tries to be realistic about how and where people live; interacting with nature can mean accessing what is available, while aspiring to what is not.

    Interacting with nature makes a difference in how people view and move in the world, Kahn said.

    To gain perspective on what children learn from nature, the authors turned to a Seattle preschool, Fiddleheads Forest School, where director Kit Harrington has created a curriculum shaped by the outdoors. There, the authors observed children developing skills that adults might take for granted but that are only learned through the experience of being outside: mimicking bird calls, digging in the dirt and even protecting one’s body during a fall.

    “Knowing how to do that is not a given,” Kahn said. “We have an entire generation that spends so much time in front of screens that, when they do go out into nature, they don’t know how to interact with it, or handle themselves.”

    Meaningful interactions with nature not only can teach, but also help people rejuvenate, reflect and recognize the importance of the outdoors. If a bike path, playground or trailhead is the closest nature to you, then you should take advantage of it. Developing a “nature language” — encountering the environment in ways large and small that result in positive feelings — can begin to reverse environmental generational amnesia.

    In Seattle, the city’s largest park can serve as a laboratory for how people interact with nature. To that end, Kahn and his research group are collecting feedback from Discovery Park visitors about their experience there. The effort is a way, Kahn said, to give voice to the perspectives and experiences of people who visit the park and to learn what nature means to them.

    “A park of that size allows for interactions with nature that are almost impossible to have in the city. It’s not enough, but it’s better than not having it,” Kahn said. “A bigger park is better than a smaller park, and a smaller park is better than no park.

    “You can’t take nature for granted anywhere. Even in Seattle.”


  3. Study suggests short nature intervention can bring out the best in people

    November 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus press release:

    Is it any wonder that most happiness idioms are associated with nature? Happy as a pig in muck, happy as a clam, happy camper.

    A UBC researcher says there’s truth to the idea that spending time outdoors is a direct line to happiness. In fact, Holli-Anne Passmore says if people simply take time to notice the nature around them, it will increase their general happiness and well-being.

    Passmore, a PhD psychology student at UBC’s Okanagan campus, recently published research examining the connection between taking a moment to look at something from the natural environment and personal well-being. A recent study involved a two-week ‘intervention’ where participants were asked to document how nature they encountered in their daily routine made them feel. They took a photo of the item that caught their attention and jotted down a short note about their feelings in response to it.

    Other participants tracked their reactions to human-made objects, took a photo and jotted down their feelings, while a third group did neither. Passmore explains that examples of nature could be anything not human built: a house plant, a dandelion growing in a crack in a sidewalk, birds, or sun through a window.

    “This wasn’t about spending hours outdoors or going for long walks in the wilderness,” Passmore says. “This is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.”

    Passmore, who studies wellness, says she was ‘overwhelmed’ not only by the response of her 395 study participants — more than 2,500 photos and descriptions of emotions were submitted — but also by the impact that simply noticing emotional responses to nearby nature had on personal well-being. And their prosocial orientation — a willingness to share resources and the value they placed on community.

    There is scientific documentation that people who live in greenspaces generally seem to be happier, and may live longer than those who don’t. Passmore is taking that research further. This study is one of a series by a research team in UBC Okanagan’s psychology department known as the “Happy Team” which is providing evidence that nature can increase happiness.

    “The difference in participants’ well-being their happiness, sense of elevation, and their level of connectedness to other people, not just nature — was significantly higher than participants in the group noticing how human-built objects made them feel and the control group.”


  4. Study suggests some natural environments more psychologically beneficial than others

    November 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Surrey press release:

    Spending time in rural and coastal locations is more psychologically beneficial to individuals than time spent in urban green spaces, a new study in the journal Environment & Behavior reports.

    During this innovative study, researchers from the University of Surrey, University of Exeter, University of Plymouth and Plymouth Marine Laboratory worked with Natural England to examine the experiences of over 4,500 people when spending time in nature and investigated for the first time how different environmental settings and their quality impacted on psychological wellbeing.

    Asking participants to describe their visit and to evaluate their overall encounter, researchers discovered that those who visited rural and coastal locations reported greater psychological contentment than those who spent time in urban green spaces, such as city gardens and parks. It was also found that visits to natural areas of protected or designated status i.e. national parks, also resulted in improved mental wellbeing.

    Researchers found these visits to nature (especially those to protected sites and to coastal and rural green settings) were associated with both greater feelings of relaxation and refreshment but also stronger emotional connections to the natural world. Interestingly it was discovered that visits longer than 30 minutes were associated with a better connection and subsequently had greater psychological benefits.

    Socio-economic status was also found not to be a factor in enjoyment of nature, demonstrating the importance of providing free/affordable entrance to sites. This will help prevent socio-economic inequality in accessing nature.

    Lead author of the paper Dr Kayleigh Wyles, who undertook the research whilst at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and now Lecturer in Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, said:

    “We’ve demonstrated for some time that nature can be beneficial to us, but we’re still exploring how and why. Here we have found that our mental wellbeing and our emotional bond with nature may differ depending on the type and quality of an environment we visit.

    “These findings are important as they not only help unpick the mechanisms behind these psychological benefits, but they can also help to prioritise the protection of these environments and emphasise why accessibility to nature is so important.”

    Professor Mel Austen, Head of the Sea and Society Science Area at Plymouth Marine Laboratory said: “It was surprising to learn that the extent of protection of marine environments also affects the extent of mental health benefits that people gain from their interactions with the sea.

    “People’s health is likely to become an increasingly important aspect to consider as we manage our coasts and waters for the benefit of all users.”

    The positive benefits of interaction with nature are well documented with numerous studies reporting a reduction of stress levels in participants and an increase in overall wellbeing in those spending time in nature. This is the first study of its kind which shows that different types of natural environments have more of an impact on psychological wellbeing than others.


  5. Study suggests availability of nature near city-dwellers’ homes improves brain health

    October 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft press release:

    A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has investigated the relationship between the availability of nature near city dwellers’ homes and their brain health. Its findings are relevant for urban planners among others.

    Noise, pollution, and many people in a confined space: Life in a city can cause chronic stress. City dwellers are at a higher risk of psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia than country dwellers. Comparisons show higher activity levels in city dwellers’ than in country dwellers’ amygdala — a central nucleus in the brain that plays an important role in stress processing and reactions to danger. Which factors can have a protective influence? A research team led by psychologist Simone Kühn has examined which effects nature near people’s homes such as forest, urban green, or wasteland has on stress-processing brain regions such as the amygdala. “Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption that the environment can shape brain structure and function. That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development. Studies of people in the countryside have already shown that living close to nature is good for their mental health and well-being. We therefore decided to examine city dwellers,” explains first author Simone Kühn, who led the study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and now works at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE).

    Indeed, the researchers found a relationship between place of residence and brain health: those city dwellers living close to a forest were more likely to show indications of a physiologically healthy amygdala structure und were therefore presumably better able to cope with stress. This effect remained stable when differences in educational qualifications and income levels were controlled for. However, it was not possible to find an association between the examined brain regions and urban green, water, or wasteland. With these data, it is not possible to distinguish whether living close to a forest really has positive effects on the amygdala or whether people with a healthier amygdala might be more likely to select residential areas close to a forest. Based on present knowledge, however, the researchers regard the first explanation as more probable. Further longitudinal studies are necessary to accumulate evidence.

    The participants in the present study are from the Berlin Aging Study II (BASE-II) — a larger longitudinal study examining the physical, psychological, and social conditions for healthy aging. In total, 341 adults aged 61 to 82 years took part in the present study. Apart from carrying out memory and reasoning tests, the structure of stress-processing brain regions, especially the amygdala, was assessed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In order to examine the influence of nature close to peoples’ homes on these brain regions, the researchers combined the MRI data with geoinformation about the participants’ places of residence. This information stemmed from the European Environment Agency’s Urban Atlas, which provides an overview of urban land use in Europe.

    “Our study investigates the connection between urban planning features and brain health for the first time,” says co-author Ulman Lindenberger, Director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. By 2050, almost 70 percent of the world population is expected to be living in cities. These results could therefore be very important for urban planning. In the near future, however, the observed association between the brain and closeness to forests would need to be confirmed in further studies and other cities, stated Ulman Lindenberger.


  6. Contact with nature may mean more social cohesion, less crime

    February 24, 2016 by Ashley

    From the American Institute of Biological Sciences media release:

    amish countrysideNumerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of contact with nature for human well-being.

    However, despite strong trends toward greater urbanization and declining green space, little is known about the social consequences of such contact. In the December issue of BioScience, an international, interdisciplinary team reports on how they used nationally representative data from the United Kingdom and stringent model testing to examine the relationships between objective measures and self-reported assessments of contact with nature, community cohesion, and local crime incidence.

    The results in the report, by Netta Weinstein of Cardiff University and others, were notable. After accounting for a range of possibly interfering factors, including socioeconomic deprivation, population density, unemployment rate, socioeconomic standing, and weekly wages, the authors determined that people’s experiences of local nature reported via a survey could explain 8% of a measure of the variation, called variance, in survey responses about perceptions of community cohesion. They describe this as “a striking finding given that individual predictors such as income, gender, age, and education together accounted for only 3%” of the variance.

    The relationship with crime was similarly striking. According to the study results, objective measures of the amount of green space or farmland accessible in people’s neighborhoods accounted for 4% additional variance in crime rates. The authors argue that this predictive power compares favorably with known contributors to crime, such as socioeconomic deprivation, which accounts for 5% variance in crime rates. “The positive impact of local nature on neighbors’ mutual support may discourage crime, even in areas lower in socioeconomic factors,” they write. Further, given the political importance placed on past crime reductions as small as 2%-3%, the authors suggest that findings such as theirs could justify policies aimed at ameliorating crime by improving contact with nature.

    Finally, the authors note that, unlike some easily measured ecosystem services (e.g., the provision of water or food), “the apparent benefits of contact with nature on social cohesion… are more challenging to tease apart and measure.” However, they express the hope that their study “stimulates consideration of how best to ensure that nature, at many different levels, can continue to benefit individuals and society into the future.”