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A multi-sensory approach to explain how access to nature enhances human mental health and wellbeing

Principal Supervisor: Dr Susannah Thorpe - School of Biosciences

Co-supervisors: Jon Sadler; Phil Jones

PhD project title: A multi-sensory approach to explain how access to nature enhances human mental health and wellbeing

University of Registration: Birmingham

Project outline:

Fifty four per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66% by 2050 (United Nations, 2014). This is a significant emerging global issue, not least because a large body of evidence has linked urbanisation with poor mental health and wellbeing. There is, however, growing evidence that access to green spaces, such as parks and woodlands, can be used to combat the adverse health effects of urbanization. Access to green space enhances health not only by promoting physical activity, but also simply by exposure to nature, which humans have become increasingly dislocated from during the 20th and 21st centuries. The impact is so pronounced that people who view of greenery outside their windows have lower stress levels than those who see built environments. Since mental health disorders affect most people at some point in their lives, with 16% of the general population affected at any given time (Dept. of Health), there is a clear need to understand the causal links between green space and enhanced health. Nevertheless, very little is known about the biological mechanisms that underpin this relationship.

Most research on the health benefits of natural environments has focused on people’s visual habitats. Many studies have correlated indicators of mental health with starkly-contrasting visual variables such as grassland vs woodland or vegetation vs concrete. But humans experience their surroundings through sound, smell, vision and touch; and input from each of these sensory channels may amplify, modify and/or override the others. Moreover broad habitat classes disguise important variability in the plant and animal species that are present and in the colour, complexity, sounds and smells that fill natural habitats. Finally, many of the leading theories of how green spaces enhance mental health are grounded on the concept that humans are ‘hardwired’ by their evolutionary history to derive cognitive benefits from the environments that enhanced the survival of early humans. Such theories are based on a static and outdated view of human evolution and on poorly documented links between cognition and affectation. Thus despite an enormous body of literature spanning the last 60 years, no study has yet quantified the causal relationship between natural environments and mental health.

Objectives:

The DR will contribute to an exciting new research programme that will employ a novel eco-evolutionary approach to understand people’s multisensory experience of green space and the mechanisms by which it improves their mental health. Our core objectives are to 1) quantify the elements of green space that generate beneficial effects on human mental health and the mechanisms by which they do so and 2) quantify the extent to which our response to green space is hardwired by our evolutionary history.

Methods:

The DR will gain unique training in a complementary range of methods in the biological and social sciences. These include to:

  1. use novel combinations of technologies to record environmental variability (such as light intensity, colour spectrum, sounds etc) at the landscape level;
  2. develop existing wearable bio-sensing technologies to build an integrated, synchronised multisensory tool to measure participant’s sensory experience and physiological responses as they move through green spaces;
  3. employ video playback interview techniques to establish what participants perceive in natural environments (to compare to actual and experienced environments obtained in 1 and 2 above);
  4. develop indices to classify different natural habitats and key features (e.g. indicators of wildlife and key plant species);
  5. employ self assessment questionnaires and post experiment interviews to measure self esteem, mood and levels of stress, as indicators of mental health.

References:

  1. Bratman, G, et al (2012). The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1249 118–136.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Molecules, cells and systems

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

  • Heart rate monitorting (EEG)
  • Electromyography(EMG)
  • Cortisol analysis (salivary/hair)
  • Video ethnography
  • Biosensing
  • Qualitative interviews
  • Self-administered questionnaires
  • Geospatial analysis
  • Qualitative GIS

Contact: Dr Susannah Thorpe, University of Birmingham