Deviant personalities and their relationship with nature

A guest blog by Dr Dean Fido & Dr Alice Rees.

The affinity that humans share with nature is well-documented, as are the benefits of living a life interwoven and connected with nature. Such benefits include facets that are key to living a worthwhile live and the protection against poor mental wellbeing. Our research group has also found nature connectedness plays a part in pro-social and empathic behaviour (Fido & Richardson, 2019; Passmore & Holder, 2017). In the West, this presents a strong disparity with the Hobbesian viewpoint that selfish and aggressive behavioural trends are somewhat normaland adaptivein the modern world. To date, however, this remains a highly under-researched avenue of investigation.

In psychology, dark personalitiesare commonly characterised by conceptually distinct yet overlapping personality traits present throughout the general population. They include personalities which thrive on a callous disregard for others, cynicism, self-centeredness, and manipulation. These traits are commonly labelled psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sadism and even though research into nature connectedness has grown exponentially over the last decade, we are the first to explore the role of dark personality in the experience of nature. The results of that research have just been published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Free access until 20/11/20; Fido et al., 2020; also pre-print: https://psyarxiv.com/shd7v).

Our latest research looks at two UK based adult samples and the links between psychopathy and nature connectedness. We see that psychopathy (i.e., deficits in empathy and the emotional connection to others) predicts low levels of nature connectedness. This mirrors our earlier findings that low levels of nature connectedness are associated with greater callous and unemotional traits (an index of psychopathy) (Fido & Richardson, 2019; https://psyarxiv.com/dtc42/). We found this pattern with Machiavellianism (cynicism and manipulation) and sadism (enjoyment of inflicting and watching pain in others) which suggests a general lack of empathy in those low in nature connectedness. These relationships persisted even when considering the participant’s disposition (or lack thereof) to be connected with wider aspects of society. This further supports nature connectedness as a unique concept that is not to be conflated with a greater need for connection with society.

Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

Alongside this, we looked at participant’s preference for living in inner-city areas (typically limited in green spaces) and their history of living in densely populated vs rural areas. The motivation behind this suggests that individuals characterised by dark personalities benefit from residing among others with whom they can easily manipulate and take of advantage of, with the ultimate goal of succeeding in life and establishing themselves in positions of power. We found that those who scored higher in psychopathy showed a preference for residing in inner-city, relative to rural and suburban areas  – although, this did not map onto participants’ residential history. While those who scored higher in psychopathy expressed a preference for inner-city living, they did not report living in more densely populated areas.

Nevertheless, we show nature connectedness appears to be heavily implicated by personality variables which are underpinned by empathic responses to others. Moreover, as such personality traits also predict engagement in deviant and often illegal activities, there presents opportunity to further explore the role of interventions aimed at increasing our levels of nature connectedness in populations at risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

 

Fido, D., Rees, A., Clarke, P., Petronzi, D., & Richardson, M. (2020). Examining the connection between nature connectedness and dark personality. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 72, 101499.

Fido, D., & Richardson, M. (2019). Empathy Mediates the Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Both Callous and Uncaring Traits.Ecopsychology, 11(2).

Passmore, H. A., & Holder, M. D. (2017). Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(6), 537-546.

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The Nature of Meaningful Maps

Maps provide a representation the landscape – often the natural landscape. So they play a part in the human-nature relationship. Maps are also relevant to my previous human factors research into external representations and mental models. Maps are part of our thinking and actions, how easily we get from A to B – but they can also encourage people to walk. And encourage people to pause and notice nature. Maps can bring joy and connection!

The OS maps we often use are detailed and accurate representations of the features of the landscape, using symbols where necessary. They’re wonderful pieces of work, but getting the most out of them requires map-reading skills in order to construct a spatial representation or image in the mind. The map, the mind and the landscape become coupled as we try to find our way. This quote from cognitive psychologist and expert on visuo-spatial thinking, Barbara Tversky opens up the possibilities of maps:

“Maps schematize the real world in that they are two-dimensional, they omit information, they regularize, they use inconsistent scale and perspective, and they exaggerate, fantasize, and carry messages” – Barbara Tversky.

We can choose which information to include and even exaggerate features to create a meaningful journey – a journey that taps into the pathways to nature connectedness for example. More on that later, first lets dig a little deeper into the cognition and ‘schematisation’.

How we Think with Maps

Effective maps schematise information in ways similar to the ways our minds schematise information. Schematisation involves excluding information, simplifying and even distorting information – maps and memory are not a perfect mirror of reality. Aerial views of the landscape are common and easy to access, but we don’t use them as maps even though they’re realistic. They are cluttered, contain unnecessary detail and can hide useful detail. Although, like maps aerial photos show an overview where as we see a frontal view when on the ground. Good schematisation eases interpretation, reduces memory load and facilitates information processing. However, it can introduce bias and error.

Maps distribute thinking. Such that it involves neither wholly internal, nor entirely external, representations – instead they involve an interaction between both representational domains – the mind and the map. To comprehend a map we decompose the map into basic elements. Maps encourage the formation of ‘spatial mental models’, based on prior knowledge, presented information and reasoning skills. Poor spatial information and highly schematised, unrealistic maps can interfere with this mental process. However, rather than a mental map a better metaphor for people’s mental representations of the landscape is a mental collage.

This comprehension of maps makes use of the ‘visuospatial sketchpad’ component of our memory which has limited capacity. Visualization loads our working memory and cognition a lot, especially when the mismatch between the internal and external representation grows. Maps that reduce possible interpretations of a situation are more efficient. Wayfinding is a complex cognitive exercise!

Good maps should make mentally imagining and evaluating actions easier. To do this good maps assist search, facilitate recognition and inference – three key components of information processing. They should activate ‘perceptual operations’ – the perceptual work should be automatic and easy. For example, spatial relationships do not have to be described; they are immediately apparent. Maps are more difficult to use when skills are needed to extract the information from them. Through being closely coupled with the mind, and the reality of the landscape, maps can reduce the amount of cognitive effort required to find our way.

Maps and Nature Connection

This dry cognitive perspective seems at odds with Tversky’s quote on inconsistent scale and perspective, exaggeration and fantasy – but neither maps or memory are perfect reflections of the world. Using those imperfections is where the skill and creativity of the mapmaker come in.

One of the first things I did when I was renewing my relationship with the rest of the natural world was draw a map to understand the local landscape. To strip away the detail to reveal the bones of the landscape and places and features that had meaning fore me. Using the accuracy of OS maps as a guide I exaggerated the hills to match how they felt on the ground – steep! Rather than a vertical overview, I created a viewpoint that looked towards my home from high above the valley below. The map revealed a modest plateau between two rivers. When I think of my local landscape, I think in terms of my map and the simple context it provides.

Understanding the local landscape with a hand drawn map

Maps and location have been a key part of some of our nature connectedness research. By recording where people were when enjoying the good things in nature we were able to find a strong relationship between levels of biodiversity in the landscape and emotional response to that place. People reported being happier in sites with greater variety of wildlife and with a greater variety of habitats. We mapped emotions and perceptions of biodiversity.

Mapping Positive Emotions

So how might maps play a role in increasing nature connectedness? They can be designed with the pathways to nature connectedness in mind. Maps can help:

  • Activate the senses: Encourage users to notice and actively engage with nature – highlight places to pause.
  • Elicit emotions: Encourage users to engage emotionally with nature – map the joy and wonder of the landscape.
  • Highlight nature’s beauty: Map and point people towards beauty in the natural world.
  • Provide and help discover meaning: Let nature bring meaning to life –nthrough natural waypoints. Celebrate nature – map songs, stories, poems and art.
  • Facilitate care and compassion: provide opportunities to take actions that are good for nature – and actions that do not disturb nature.

And maps can also reveal new things about familiar landscapes. A journey of discovery is not just to wild landscapes, but finding wilderness, wonder and meaning in simple places close to home. Maps can be a part of that journey. Maps can help find our way closer to nature, not just travel through it.

 

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Tune Into Nature Music Prize Winner

It’s a delight to announce the winner of the Tune Into Nature Music Prize, it’s been wonderful to see the idea become reality with the support of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Selfridges, Tileyard London. The winning track is I Eden by LYDIAH, who says:

“Becoming the winner of the Tune Into Nature Music Prize has been such a blessing, I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunity. It’s definitely going to help me progress as an artist. Having Selfridges play my track in store and to be associated with such an incredible movement for Project Earth is something that I am very proud of and excited for. I’m able to use the funding to support my debut E.P which couldn’t have come at a better time! The Prize is such a great project and the message is so so important. I can’t thank Miles, Martyn and everyone who supports it enough.”

Twenty-one year old LYDIAH, based in Liverpool, has been selected as the winner of the Tune Into Nature Music Prize for her entry I Eden. The composition is written from the point of view of Mother Nature and highlights the dangers of humans becoming increasingly distanced from the natural world. LYDIAH will receive a £1,000 grant to support her work, the opportunity to perform at Timber Festival in 2021 and a remix with Tileyard London produced by Principal Martyn Ware (Heaven 17), who says:

I thoroughly enjoyed helping to judge some exceptional entries for this unique competition. Our winner is a very talented young artist who I’m looking forward to meeting and working with to create an exciting remix. As an artist and an activist myself, I hope this will encourage more young people to creatively respond to the issues we face today. We all want the success of this year’s competition to encourage even more entries next year.

The Prize is the brainchild of Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby. The research team at the University of Derby has found that the connection between young people and nature dips during teenage years and takes more than a decade to recover. Research also shows that references to nature in contemporary music have decreased consistently since the 1950s. This matters as a close connection with nature helps both the wellbeing of people and our planet, as people who are tuned into nature are more likely to care for it, as Miles says:

“LYDIAH’s lyrics stood out as they tell the story of the importance of the simple things in nature, the birds and the trees – and their beauty. Our research this year shows that tuning into these simple things really matters for nature’s wellbeing and our own wellbeing – yet people tend not to notice them. Through singing of Mother Nature’s loss LYDIAH helps highlight their importance”.

I Eden will be broadcast through Selfridges’ flagship store on 3 and 10 October as part of the organisation’s Project Earth initiative which pledges its long-term commitment to creating a more sustainable future for people and the planet.

The Prize was selected by a team comprising Prof. Miles Richardson of the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby; Dr Simon Lesley, Course Director of BA (Hons) Popular Music at Birmingham City University; musician Sam Lee, music critic Kristan J Caryl, Selfridges, Tileyard London, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park to highlight the need for a new relationship with nature and provide vital support for young creative practitioners. It was facilitated by Yorkshire Sculpture Park as part of its mission to be an agent of positive change, bringing people together who wouldn’t otherwise meet to realise shared ambitions.

The judges were impressed by many of the 180 entries and highly recommend a number, which ranged from folk (Iona Lane, Alyshah Monroe); instrumental (Faraaz Hussain), folk/jazz (Sullie Burgess) as well as tracks inspired by the lockdown (Sarah Carton, Niamh Gibbs, Max Greaves) or contemporary tracks inspired by simple pleasures in nature (Caslean, Omar Gutierrez, Tyler Worthington, Shivelights) and express their gratitude to everyone who took part.

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Does Forest Bathing Improve Mental Health? A Systematic Review

Shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing, has been receiving increased attention internationally. Our latest paper provides a review of research that has considered forest bathing and mental health. Following peer review the full paper has been published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.

Shinrin-yoku is a healing practice in Japan, where people immerse themselves in nature, while mindfully paying attention to their senses. Often involving a walk in a forest, it aims to integrate and harmonise humans with a forest. Shinrin-yoku programmes vary and can include breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, walking, aromatherapy, and other recreational activities (e.g., cooking), that are often aimed at producing relaxation effects for well-being.

We gathered 481 articles related to forest bathing and nature therapy in someway. Of those, twenty met inclusion criteria, e.g. being peer-reviewed, being of good design and using forest bathing. Of the 20 papers eight were non-randomised trials and twelve randomised controlled trials. The studies were mainly conducted in Asia with three in Europe.

They also used a variety of different forest bathing approaches (e.g., breathing, walking, yoga) and time duration ranged from 15 minutes to nine days. While all studies involved paying attention to the five senses, 18 (90%) studies involved walking and three (15%) involved recreational activities. A variety of outcomes measures were used, including depression, anxiety and anger. The results from all these studies was included in a meta-analysis. A total of 2257 participants (M=1478, F=779; age range 18 to 79 years old) were involved in these included studies. It’s interesting to note that our systematic review of nature connectedness included 50 research studies, involving 16,396 people, yet forest bathing gets 300 times more press coverage (37,600 news stories mention forest bathing, 123 news stories mention nature connectedness).

While some of the forest bathing studies demonstrated good design and reporting, we found a number of weaknesses concerning study design and outcomes. Therefore an important outcome of the research in recommending a number of areas of improvement, which should strengthen future shinrin-yoku research.

With those design caveats in mind we did find some evidence that shinrin-yoku could be effective for depression, anxiety, stress and anger in both clinical and non-clinical samples, especially for anxiety. Although all included studies demonstrated some promising results, the risk of bias was deemed medium to high, and potential publication bias was identified in almost all analyses. This may explain why benefits were greater for Japanese and Asian participants: people in a culture that accords with nature’s healing effects may receive greater benefits from shinrin-yoku.

A key finding was that none of the randomised control trials (RCTs) compared shinrin-yoku with other major therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Shinrin-yoku was often compared with spending time in urban settings. Spending time in urban setting has negative health effects and our RCT meta-analyses targeting anxiety and anger, found that all control groups reported increases in mean scores. Therefore, some of the the benefits found could be related to negative impact of the control condition, rather than positive benefits of forest bathing. We recommended that shinrin-yoku should be compared with other major therapeutic approaches and simply spending time in nature to explore the added value forest bathing brings.

A further observation was the variety of practice and time spent in forest bathing interventions. This makes it difficult to establish what works and the value added by some elements. To be more accepted as a reliable clinical approach, there needs to be greater understanding of which aspects of shinrin-yoku deliver benefits so they can be core to delivery.

Other limitations in the shinrin-yoku research reviewed included a lack of follow-up assessments. A lack of follow-up assessments can compromise the validity of clinical research because whether the effects of shinrin-yoku can last for a period of months remains uncertain. The representativeness of the sample was also not addressed, therefore whether the study recruited people who were interested in, and positively interpreted/reported the effects of shinrin-yoku or not was not clarified. In the RCTs, randomisation and blinding were not addressed. In addition, many RCTs used a crossover design with no interval (the groups were swapped on the next day), which may violate the accuracy of the results: the impacts of the first intervention need to be ‘washed out’ before swapping the groups. Furthermore, failing to blind the researchers can lead to placebo effects in participants; this maybe particularly important when studies include a prominent shinrin-yoku figure. Finally, the included RCTs did not conduct intention-to-treat analysis and did not clarify whether other outcomes were measured or not.

Finally, although likely to activate the pathways to nature connectedness, none of the studies explored the psychological construct of nature connectedness, which is linked to higher levels of psychological well-being. Future shinrin-yoku research should also explore nature connectedness, both as a potential outcome of forest bathing, but also as a mechanism for the benefits of forest bathing.

Conclusion

The twenty studies of a suitable standard to be included in this systematic review and meta-analysis reported that shinrin-yoku could be effective for mental health, particularly anxiety – but more robust research is required with benefits compared to simple exposure to nature and established therapeutic approaches. Whilst promising results were reported, medium-high risk of bias and publication bias were also identified. Some of the key constructs related to mental health (e.g., self-compassion, isolation, nature-connectedness) have not been explored in shinrin-yoku research and mechanisms of benefits (e.g. nature connectedness and affect regulation) have not been determined. Additionally, the duration of benefits and how they compare with other established therapeutic approaches are needed for shinrin-yoku to be accepted as mainstream mental health intervention.

 

Kotera, Y., Richardson, M., & Sheffield, D. (2020). Effects of Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy on Mental Health: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1-25.

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Can citizen science make you happier?

A guest blog about taking part in our latest research project Nature Up Close and Personal: A Wellbeing Experiment, by Sophie Yeo from the new and excellent Inkcap a newsletter about nature, ecology and conservation in the UK.

Nature Up Close and Personal is a NERC funded project with UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, University of Derby and the British Science Association: take part here.

I am sitting on a bench staring very hard at a thistle.

I am counting the insects that appear, but I don’t think I am doing a particularly good job. Several minutes on the ten-minute timer have expired and nothing has shown up. I am panicking about my blank recording form and the state of British pollinators.

Eventually, a bee arrives. Or is it a hoverfly? It darts away so quickly that I cannot identify it. Plus, I am getting distracted by a goldfinch singing in the adjacent apple tree. I refocus my attention on the thistle. Now there is a small fly. Should I record this species? I can’t remember.

When the time is up, I have seen three bees, a fly and a yellow ladybird. I have taken photos; my identification skills are not strong enough to accurately determine the species in the milliseconds that they spend on the thistle. I wouldn’t say I’m feeling relaxed, but there’s undoubtedly something calming about setting aside my usual whirl of thoughts and focusing on the world of this single plant.

I am taking part in a citizen science project – but one with a twist. In addition to counting the insects in my garden, I am also providing feedback to a team of scientists on how this activity is making me feel.

The experiment is being run by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology alongside the University of Derby. The insect counting activity is a classic citizen science experiment; members of the public are essentially instructed to collect local data that feeds into a wider picture of insect population trends. It is vital work: without a network of willing volunteers, the decline in pollinators across the UK would be much harder to detect.

But the scientists are also researching another question: does participating in citizen science make people happy?

There are certainly good reasons to think that it might. Miles Richardson runs the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group, which focuses on links between the natural world and our mental health. His research has shown that activities that connect us to nature – such as smelling wildflowers or watching the sun rise – can improve our mental health.

Citizen science projects give people a reason to venture into the great outdoors and encourage an unusually forensic (and some might say mindful) approach to nature. While I often spend time in my garden, for instance, I rarely give my undivided attention to a single bloom.

Equally, it’s possible that taking a methodical approach to nature could undermine the psychological benefits forged through a more sensuous and emotional connection.

“If you’re counting pollinating insects, you’re deeply engaged with those insects, so it could be that will increase nature connectedness and wellbeing. But are you appreciating them or are you counting them? We don’t know if that kind of focused attention starts to interfere with your enjoyment of them,” says Richardson.

So the team is putting the theory to the test, asking volunteers to carry out a number of tasks and record their personal responses. Some, like me, have been asked to undertake a pollinator count, some to record butterflies, and others simply to notice the nature around them. Some participants are asked to multitask, both recording insects or butterflies while also noticing nature.

There are two excellent reasons to investigate this question of whether citizen science makes us happy and improves wellbeing.

Firstly, nature demonstrably improves mental health, but there are still questions over how best to harness this effect. Policymakers, planners and architects are among the professions that hope to optimise how people engage with the natural world; whether they should be prompted to notice and enjoy their surroundings, or whether it’s equally helpful to engage with the world rigorously and methodically.

The question is particularly pertinent given the solace that nature has provided during the coronavirus lockdown; indeed, the project was funded through a COVID-19 urgency grant.

“If we can have greater understanding about the impacts of nature on our wellbeing and the benefits to individuals, I think that helps us as society think more strategically about what we can do to support people who might be suffering through aspects of social isolation,” says Michael Pocock, an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who is leading the project.

In this case, if the experiment shows that citizen science does improve mental wellbeing, then future projects can be designed to maximise the psychological as well as the scientific benefits.

Secondly, if citizen science makes people happy, then nature itself could benefit.

Recent studies by Richardson’s research group have demonstrated that people who feel a greater connection to nature are more likely to behave in a way that protects the natural world. If citizen science projects encourage more people to form a meaningful connection to nature, then there is a clear benefit to the planet.

But this research project could provide an additional boost to efforts to preserve the UK’s declining biodiversity. Scientists rely on large networks of volunteers to collect the local observations that underpin their knowledge of the natural world – people who tend to be driven by scientific interest or concern for the planet. Proven mental health benefits may provide an additional incentive for people to get involved, leading to bigger and better datasets for scientists.

“Maybe it sounds a bit idealistic, or certainly optimistic, that we can have these genuine win-wins, where we can have this greater understanding of the world, but we also have people who are happier, feel better and care more. It’s all going in the same direction,” adds Pocock.

The notion that nature may be a salve to our minds has, it feels, become embedded in the country’s psyche in recent months. A flurry of books covering this idea of a “nature cure” (Losing Eden and The Natural Health Service are two wonderful examples) has encouraged many people to find peace in wildlife and greenery during these troubled times. But I often wonder whether this phenomenon exists beyond my own social bubble.

Experiments like this are useful because they reach out to new communities of interest: to people who enjoy counting and recording instead of feeling and observing. Personalities are varied and complex; perhaps nature can bring peace to them all.


The team is still looking for volunteers. Click here to take part.

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