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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Nature: The Ultimate Network?

Today I attended a workshop at Defra about connecting people with the environment. The questions for the day were broadly who to target? The barriers and challenges? What works? How to scale up? A cultural change is required within a generation and towards the end of the day our table focussed on young adults; our research suggests they are more disconnected from nature than older generations. Further justification is that this group are likely to be influencing future generations; their children. This group is often termed Millennials. Continue reading

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3 Good Things in Nature – A simple way to improve connection with nature

A strong connection with nature lies at the heart of a healthy life and a healthy planet – but how do we increase people’s nature connection? That is my research focus and such increases need to be sustained and achieved as part of our everyday lives. The good news is that our recent paper shows how simply noting ‘3 good things in nature’ each day for a week leads to longer term increases in nature connection.

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How Nature Regulates Emotions and the Heart for Wellbeing

There is plenty of evidence that nature is good for us, but how does being in nature impact on our emotions, body and wellbeing? Our latest paper, just published open access in Evolutionary Psychological Science, presents a model and supporting evidence to show that nature regulates emotions and the heart. This brings balance to our feelings and the nervous system that controls the function of our body, and organs such as the heart. Balance of emotions brings wellbeing, and regulation of heart rhythms helps heart health. This is the story of how nature helps keep us well.

To explain the benefits of nature we need to understand our emotions and their underlying physiology. A simple way to do this is to represent these systems with 3 circles – represented here by a falcon, ash tree and wild boar warning!

Full Model

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Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature

Nature Connection has kept me really busy over recent months, the growing interest is great, but I’m understanding the restorative effects of nature more and more! So far in 2016 i’ve written, and had accepted, five research papers and the Nature Connections 2016 conference took place last month – see the story here. Next up is one project that’s going to keep me (and several others) busy for the next 3 years. IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature has been awarded £1.3 million from the Natural Environment Research Council – part of the human health and wellbeing goal of the Valuing Nature programme. Although we know that spending time in with nature is good for people, the project will investigate the dose and which particular features of green space boost people’s health and personal enjoyment.

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