Our Growing Disconnection: The Decline of Nature in Fiction, Film and Song

A brief blog to quickly highlight a research paper just published in Perspectives on Psychological Science. The article opens with reference to the January 2015 letter to OUP protesting at the loss of nature words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. The study analysed works of popular culture throughout the 20th century, finding a cultural shift away from nature starting in the 1950s. The authors, Kesebir & Kesebir go on to consider what might explain the decline.

Books, films and songs reflect the social context of their time, offering an insight into changes in culture over the years. The authors equate nature connectedness to nature references in such works, arguing firstly that they reflect their creators’ minds and the social scene. Secondly, that the writer will want the work to resonate with their audiences. We’ve only had measures of the psychological construct of nature connectedness for 15 years or so, so such an approach is worthwhile and it produced interesting results.

A nature lexicon of 186 words was used and compared to a comparison set of human-built environment words. The percentage of nature words rose slightly from 1900 through to the 1940s, with a sharp decline from the 1950s through to 2000. An eyeball of the data shows a pause in the 1970s, with clear decrease from the 1980 onwards.

The analysis of film storylines also showed a decline, this time from 1930 through to 2010. The analysis of song lyrics ran from 1950, showing a scattered range of nature word use into the 1970s, but a defined modest reduction from 1980. There’s reason for a little hope though with a rise from 2000 to 2010.

However, the overall trend is clear, nature features significantly less in popular culture today, than it did around 1950. The authors acknowledge that some of this decline relates simply to the use of new words, reducing the frequency of the appearance of older words. However, a parallel pattern was not found in human-made environment words.

Two arguments are often put forward to explain our growing disconnection from nature. Urbanization and Technology. The paper argues that rates of increasing urbanisation don’t mirror the decline of nature words, yet the dawns of new technology do; from television in the 1950s to video games in the 1980s. Perhaps these technologies replaced nature as a source of joy? It seems the technology that defines us as humans shapes us more and more.

In the conclusion a cause for concern is noted – books, film and music not only reflect culture, they also shape it. Nature seems less worthy of attention, less likely to be a source of joy and wellbeing.

Such concerns lie at the heart of my research into ways to increase nature connection. One successful method is getting people to pay attention, to encourage them to find joy in nature through writing. We used one of the software packages used in the research above (LIWC), to study the sentences written by people asked to note down the good things in nature each day – thankfully people were happy to engage, they just needed a prompt. The key aspects of their sentences were sensations, changes over time, active wildlife, beauty and the interaction of weather and natural forms. These five themes accounted for over 70% of the sentences that people wrote as they went about their day-to-day activities in a predominately urban landscapes, helping us understand how to engage people with nature in an everyday context – focus on the senses, change, activity and nature’s beauty. Or simply ask people to note the good things in nature each day, it led to sustained increases in nature connection and wellbeing. We’ll be prompting the people of Sheffield to do that this summer in our IWUN research project.

 

Kesebir, S., & Kesebir, P. (2017). A Growing Disconnection From Nature Is Evident in Cultural Products. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(2), 258-269.

Richardson, M. & Sheffield, D. (2017). Three good things in nature: Noticing nearby nature brings sustained increases in connection with nature. Psyecology.

Richardson, M., Hallam, J., & Lumber, R. (2015). One thousand good things in nature: Aspects of nearby nature associated with improved connection to natureEnvironmental Values24(5), 603-619.

 

Don’t forget – Nature Connections 2017 – Beyond Contact to Connection.

 

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Beyond Contact with Nature to Connection

Over the last 15 years, nature connection has become a recognised and measurable psychological construct – one that describes an individual’s sense of their relationship with the natural world. That is our emotional attachment and beliefs about our inclusion within nature. These aspects affect our being – how we experience the world, our emotional response, our attitudes and behaviour towards nature. This blog accompanies the launch of the Nature Connections 2016 conference report which expands on why nature connection matters for wellbeing, summarises nature connection research and highlights key steps forward.

Nature connection includes beliefs about our inclusion within nature

This is an exciting area of research and practice, evidence explored within the report shows that nature connection is an important factor in positive mental health and wellbeing. It acts as a mediator for wellbeing outcomes associated with exposure to nature. In fact, the wellbeing benefits of nature have been reported as being as important as established factors such as income and education. Evidence also points to nature connection being linked to the development of pro-environmental and pro-conservation behaviours.

However, we humans have created a culture that divides us from the nature that keeps us well. At a time when there is an urgent need to address health inequalities and support a more sustainable approach to the environment, there is a real need to develop a better understanding of our connection with nature and identify how research and practice can support and inform decision makers going forward. A connection with nature can help keep us, and our environment, well.

The Nature Connections conference, led and hosted by the University of Derby in June 2016, was an important step in better understanding the scale and scope of existing research and practice, exploring evidence of how nature connection works, its role in delivering health and wellbeing outcomes, and how the key attributes of nature connection could be better incorporated into the design of future nature-based interventions.

The conference had a specific aim to identify the current challenges and priorities for research and practice, and to do this by bringing together researchers and practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines with an interest in nature connection.

The NCx2016 conference report provides a useful summary of the wider context of health and wellbeing issues, and a summary of nature connection research. The report also includes the evidence shared at the conference, including presentations from the UK, Australia, Canada, Norway, Germany and Eire. The conference and its report were both kindly supported by a partnership of organisations with an interest in research and practice in this area, including Natural England, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and Historic England.

The conference highlighted that awareness of the construct of nature connection and of the tools that exist to measure it rests mainly within a relatively small research community. Among practitioner communities, whilst contact with nature or exposure to nature is being used extensively to support outcome delivery, there was relatively little evidence that there was awareness (or evaluation) of the construct of nature connection; rather that the term nature connection was being used more generally to mean contact with nature or exposure to nature. This makes it difficult to move beyond contact and identification to developing a meaningful and emotional relationship with nature – its joy and calm!

This reflects the key theme to emerge from the conference, which was the need and opportunity to enable a more collaborative approach between research and practice communities working in this area, one that helps build the evidence base not only on contact with nature but on nature connection, and one that actively includes the many disciplines with an interest in this area such as education, health, psychology, planning, and environment. This move ‘beyond contact’ is the headline theme of the next Nature Connections conference, once again hosted by the University of Derby on 27th June 2017.

The report recommends that future nature-based interventions will require a more strategic, integrated research programme in nature connection which should:

  • Develop a simple, consistent description/narrative to articulate what a connection with nature is, why it is important and how to evaluate it in practical situations.
  • Gather evidence to strengthen our understanding of;

o How nature connection is linked to, or mediates, physical health, wellbeing, pro-social, and pro-environmental outcomes.

o The qualities of natural environments and the types of experiences that facilitate nature connection (including those mediated by technology).

o Whether and how childhood experiences develop nature connection, and the role these have in determining the outcomes of adults.

o The influence of culture and socio-cultural factors on nature connection in a UK context, informed by an understanding of nature connection in an international context.

o The relative importance of contact with nature and nature connection in delivering outcomes, and their role in driving people’s use of green space.

To inform and be part of the way forward come along to the next Nature Connections conference, once again hosted by the University of Derby on 27th June 2017. Details of the call for papers and booking available from the conference website.

 

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Nature Connections 2017 – Call for Papers

The Nature Connections conferences are now into their third year and this years event takes place at the University of Derby, Tuesday 27 June 2017. The headline theme this year is, ‘Beyond Contact with Nature to Connection’.

To Nature and Beyond

Once again the day is about bringing together people from research and practitioner communities and beyond. The day will provide a forum for sharing and learning from the latest research and practice around the topic of nature connection. The conference will be focussed around the core themes of moving beyond contact with nature to connection; nature connection outcomes across the lifespan; enabling nature connection; and linking nature connection research and practice. Keynote speakers planned include Natural England Chief Executive, James Cross and the award-winning author, naturalist and environmental tutor, Mark Cocker.

The call for papers (PDF) has just been announced and submissions are invited around the core themes of the conference:

  • Nature connection outcomes across the lifespan
  • Enabling nature connection
  • Linking nature connection research and practice

Presentations on theory, research, case studies and practice are invited as 12 minute talks or posters. Please send 300 word abstracts to  – c.harvey@derby.ac.uk – you can also use that address to be added to the mailing list. Criteria for selection will include alignment with themes, systematic enquiry and clarity of implications. Deadline for submission is 7th April 2017.

A conference web site is available and open for bookings: http://www.derby.ac.uk/enterprisecentre/events/nature-connections/

 

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How to change human behaviour to improve the state of nature

Human behaviour is the cause of the major threats to biodiversity and there is a need to recognise that conservation is not only about understanding animals and plants, but about people and their behaviour. Nature conservation organisations know this and increasingly look to social and human sciences for solutions. It is a great time for people to supplement their knowledge of the natural world with an understanding of human behaviour, and how to change it.

Sadly, people aren’t particularly rationale, feeding folk with compelling facts about how their actions can adversely impact nature won’t change the behaviour of many – even when presented in a friendly manner. Negatively framed messages can actually have the opposite effect. Behaviour change is more complex, habits don’t change because we inform and ask (or tell). There’s a need for a carefully informed and nuanced approach based on an understanding of psychology.

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A compelling behaviour changing image?

It is for such reasons that we launched a part-time block-study Masters in Behaviour Change with an Environment and Conservation pathway. The first of its kind, the programme challenges assumptions about behaviour change. It is aimed at people who want to gain new knowledge to support their work, and at graduates from a broad range of disciplines who would like to specialise in behaviour change and add social science to their skill set. The programme covers psychological theories and models so that people can develop a greater understanding of human behaviour and behaviour change.

A small cohort of students have recently completed the programme’s specialist conservation psychology based module. We discussed the foundations of human nature connection from philosophical roots, to the self and human-nature interactions. The benefits of nature (e.g. creativity, restoration, health & wellbeing) and the promotion of nature conservation (e.g. values and frames in conservation communication) were other core topics. It was great to share in their exploration of an area related to human–nature relations of their choosing. The emphasis was understanding and applying the theoretical foundations of human-nature connection to their area of interest, from recycling to landscape management. The final outputs were compelling communications framing the issues in order to encourage and enable people to make better choices for them and nature.

 

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Why Our Connection with Nature Matters

Nature is good for us, but why? There’s plenty of evidence that exposure to nature is good for people’s health, well-being and happiness – with green spaces even promoting pro-social behaviours. However, less is known about why nature is good for us. Simply put, nature is good for us, because we are part of nature. We are human animals evolved to make sense of the natural world. This embeddedness in the natural world can often be forgotten and overlooked, mentally we can become disconnected from nature because we’re now deeply embedded in a human-made world. Emerging research is showing that knowing and feeling this connection with nature is also good for us, and it helps bring about the wider health benefits of exposure to nature. Knowing your place in nature brings meaning and joy!

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My research is focussed on understanding and increasing this connection with nature, an interest that grew from reconnecting with nature in my local landscape. I pursue this because being connected is associated with greater pro-nature conservation behaviours and our own well-being. Having a connection with nature is good for the well-being of both humans and the natural world. This blog gives a brief overview of some of that work.

Our first intervention to improve nature connection was purposefully simple, something all of us can do each and every day, in most things we do. It is simply noting ‘3 good things in nature’ each day, from noticing the song of a bird to the breeze in a tree. We found writing down three good things in nature each day for a week led to sustained increases in nature connection – and that increase was linked with improvements in psychological health. We also analysed the content of the sentences in ‘1000 Good Things in Nature’, the themes describing the everyday good things in nature, providing direction for those seeking to frame engaging conservation messages, plan urban spaces and connect people with nearby nature.

We’ve also been involved in larger scale projects, The Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild campaign set out to encourage people to value nature more highly in their own life, with an emphasis on commonplace and accessible nature experiences. Over the last couple of years over 40,000 people have taken part. Our evaluation found that participants had sustained increases in happiness, health, connection to nature and pro-nature behaviours. This was an excellent outcome, but for me a key point was that the improvement in health was influenced by the improvement in happiness (which makes sense), but this relationship was mediated by the increase in connection to nature. So spending time in nature helps people feel happier and more connected, and being both happy and connected makes people feel healthier.

As part of my work to find ways to improve our connection to nature, I also do research into understanding which individual differences make us connected. For example, simply reflecting on our nature – self-directed thinking and those reflective thoughts that can improve our self-knowledge. This is a genuine interest about one’s own values and attitudes, and can also involve reflection on the emotions that contribute to our concept of self – a self that might include the natural world, which is our connection with nature. This fits well with my definition of nature connection, ‘a realisation of our shared place in nature, which affects our being – how we experience the world here and now; our emotional response, beliefs and attitudes towards nature’.

Interestingly, in our research self-refection emerged as a greater predictor of connection to nature than mindfulness. By looking inward we can realise a closer connection to nature. From an applied perspective we should find ways to promote self-reflection, places to pause in nature, and ways to prompt reflection.

Finally, there is plenty of evidence that nature is good for us, but how does being in nature impact on our emotions, body and wellbeing? To explain the benefits of nature we need to understand our emotions and their underlying physiology. Our latest paper, published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, presents three dimensions of emotion and supporting evidence to show how nature regulates emotions and the heart.

The three dimensions are that humans can experience threat, drive and contentment. Each dimension brings different feelings (such as anxiety, joy, and calm), and different motivations (avoid, pursue and rest) – each releasing various hormones in the body. For wellbeing we need a balance between the three dimensions – happiness and satisfaction comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. For example, when our threat response is overactive, an unbalance caused by being constantly driven at work for example, our positive emotions are reduced and we can become anxious or depressed.

We re-analysed previous Japanese Shinrin-yoku (forest-bathing) studies that had compared how the body reacts to being immersed in nature (woodland), to being in an urban environment. The results of the analysis supported the story told above. Finding that being in the woods was calming – activating the parasympathetic nervous system associated with contentment. Whereas the urban environment stimulated the sympathetic nervous system associated with drive and threat.

Threat, drive and contentment, and their links to our mind and bodies, are easily understood in the context of our everyday lives, providing an accessible physiological based narrative to help explain the benefits of nature. Such a neurophysiological and evolutionary explanation provides a compelling argument to convince others of the role of, and need for, nature in our everyday lives. With interventions such as ‘3 good things in nature’ and ’30 Days Wild’ providing simple ways to help engage people with nature each day, through both celebrating and reflecting on nature. All because doing so is good for nature, and good for you!

 

Richardson, M., & Sheffield, D. (2017). Three good things in nature: Noticing nearby nature brings sustained increases in connection with nature. Psyecology.

Richardson, M., McEwan, K., Maratos, F. and Sheffield, D. (2016). Joy and Calm: How an Evolutionary Functional Model of Affect Regulation Informs Positive Emotions in Nature. Evolutionary Psychological Science. doi:10.1007/s40806-016-0065-5

Richardson, M., Maspero, M., Golightly, D., Sheffield, D., Staples, V. & Lumber, R. (2016). Nature: A new paradigm for wellbeing and ergonomics. Ergonomics.

Richardson, M., Cormack, A., McRobert, L. & Underhill, R. (2016). 30 Days Wild: Development and Evaluation of a Large-Scale Nature Engagement Campaign to Improve Well-Being. PLoS ONE 11(2): e0149777. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0149777

Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., Harvey, C. & Petronzi (2016). A Report for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB): The Impact of Children’s Connection to Nature. Derby: College of Life and Natural Sciences, University of Derby.

Richardson, M., Hallam, J. & Lumber, R. (2015). One thousand good things in nature: The aspects of nature that lead to increased nature connectedness. Environmental Values, 24 (5), 603-619.

Richardson, M., & Sheffield, D. (2015). Reflective self-attention: A more stable predictor of connection to nature than mindful attention. Ecopsychology, 7 (30), 166-175.

Richardson, M., & Hallam, J. (2013). Exploring the Psychological Rewards of a Familiar Semi-Rural Landscape: Connecting to Local Nature through a Mindful Approach. The Humanistic Psychologist, 41(1), 35-53

 

A shorter version of this post was previously published on psychreg.org

 

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Taking a trip into nature: What can LSD tell us about the brain and nature connection?

A connection with nature is comprised of an affective and experiential sense of belonging to the natural world and includes the extent to which nature is included within an individual’s view of self. This blog considers recent research in Current Biology on the impact of LSD on the brain, our sense of self and how our brains make meaning.

I’m excited about this research as nature connection is considered as a subjective construct measured with questionnaires and this research suggests a potential neurobiology of nature connection – making it more objective. So, firstly, back to nature and our self. One of the nature connection measures, the Inclusion of Nature in Self scale demonstrates the concept well, with overlapping circles for person and nature (see below). The greater the overlap, the greater the connection with nature.

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Nature & Self – Measuring Nature Connection

Along similar lines, people taking LSD report that the boundary that separates them from the environment dissolves. The term for this being ‘ego dissolution’. I’ve written before that our senses and brain creates an inside that says the natural world exists; but our ego creates a self that says nature is an other. Through re-engaging with the natural world, noticing it’s beauty, finding meaning and an emotional bond we can see beyond these imagined boundaries. Indeed, my account of reconnecting with nature during 250 nature walks in 2011 included this passage:

“Where the river was audibly unstill I looked out over the flat lands, from foreground to far, and felt that the landscape and my mind merged, my sense of self dissolved.”

Needwood: A search for deep nature

My regular trips into nature changed my understanding of my self and its shared place within the natural world. I started to realise that nature is not an external other, something we encounter – it is part of our being.

Back to the research. Tagliazucchi and colleagues fMRI scanned people on LSD and found that ego dissolution occurs as the brain regions involved in higher cognition become over-connected. This expanded global brain connectivity of the fronto-parietal cortex associated with self-consciousness increases communication between normally distinct areas of the brain. The connection between this region and sensory areas overcoming perceptual boundaries between the self and the environment. Thereby forming a stronger link between the sensed environment and sense of self. Interestingly, the mid-twentieth century philosophy of Merleau-Ponty highlighted such illusionary boundaries and the interconnection between the perceived and perceiver – how we are embedded in the environment. Similarly, in The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd joins the realities of self and nature and joys in the perception of the world. Such a philosophical stance differs with the dominant Cartesian tradition of modernity, where the subject is seen as separate from object

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A second LSD fMRI paper by Preller and colleagues, published last week, considers how our brains make meaning, as experiencing a meaningful environment is a core aspect of the human self. Our research has found that finding meaning in nature, and the symbolism of nature, is a key aspect of nature connection. Through manipulating meaning with LSD, the study identified the receptors in the brain related to meaning, and these seemed to be linked to the brain areas related to the self and ego dissolution.

It would seem there could be parallels between this research and nature connection work. Pointing us towards how finding meaning in nature, and becoming more connected with nature is reflected in our neurobiology. Could nature connection be observed in the brain? There are opportunities for fMRI research here, and more focused questions such as the relationship between perceptual fluency of nature and nature connection; does tuning into nature overcome perceptual barriers between self and nature? Yet, outside the laboratory, we can all study the brain and understand our self by noticing nature’s beauty, finding meaning and developing an emotional bond – as knowing our place within nature, is knowing our self.

 

 

Tagliazucchi and Roseman et al. Increased Global Functional Connectivity Correlates with LSD-Induced Ego Dissolution. Current Biology, 2016

Katrin H. Preller, Marcus Herdener, Thomas Pokorny, Amanda Planzer, Rainer Kraehenmann, Philipp Stämpfli, Matthias E. Liechti, Erich Seifritz, Franz X. Vollenweider. The Fabric of Meaning and Subjective Effects in LSD-Induced States Depend on Serotonin 2A Receptor Activation. Current Biology, 2017

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Supporting a GCSE in Natural History

Recently there have been calls for a petition for a GCSE in Natural History, and today an alert for new research that informs and supports this proposal arrived in my inbox. The paper in Education Sciences explores how connection with nature and scientific knowledge influence pro environmental behaviour – ultimately an essential reason for a GCSE in Natural History.

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