In this week’s Psychology Report I talked with Laurie Parma from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge in England, about Nature Buzz (iTunes / Android)- the new research application they have developed to explore the links between nature and well-being.
Have a read of this conversation to understand more about who should care and what the point of this research is. I started by asking Laurie why she got interested in this link between human behaviour and the environments in which we live.
Laurie Parma: So, basically our project of building this app that connects human well-being and and biodiversity is based on two facts in nature. The first one is that green spaces foster greater human well-being and this is a fact that has been quite well replicated across various aspects of well-being. The three major ones would be that increases attention, it decreases stress, and it strengthens social ties. These are very important aspects of human well-being. And the second observation that led us to this project is that human beings benefit from diversity, especially in terms of reducing hedonic adaptation.
Hedonic adaptation is our capacity to adapt to positive and negative stimuli identically. So, the moment we – for example – move [close to] a train line, we will get very disturbed at the beginning but eventually our brain will filter out the sound information and we stop hearing the sound. So, when we have more diverse environment we don’t suffer from [this] diversity as much, and this hedonic adaptation effect, it happens for the negative events like when you live by a train line, but it also happens for a very positive events. For example, if you start having ice cream every day – which might sound like a very good idea – but actually after a few days you will habituate to the ice cream and it will stop feeling like a reward. So, diversity kind of provides a very good a buffer against adaptation that that happens towards positive and negative repeated events.
So we connected these two dots. Basically, we we took the observation that human beings benefit from green spaces and that they also benefit from diversity. So, our hypothesis is that maybe by connecting green spaces that are more diverse we’ll get more benefits out of that green space. So, that’s pretty much that the project in a nutshell.
SJ: That’s really interesting. I’m always reminded when I think about this kind of work about that adaptation and habituation that you see in your pet cat. You know, when you make a clicking sound the first time they might look at you, the second time they might flick their ears towards you, and the third time they completely ignore you. Because they’ve habituated to that noise and they know it’s not worth paying attention to any more.
LP: It’s really strong and reliable. I mean even major life events, for example getting married brings about a very strong increasing sense of happiness and well-being but eventually we very reliably always get back to baseline.
SJ: One thing that we’ve noticed certainly here in New Zealand is when we have earthquakes and if they’re not life-threatening shocks or aftershocks, for the more minor aftershocks people tend to habituate to reasonably quickly and it becomes almost like a bit of a game to try to understand what magnitude that earthquake was – whether it was a three or four possibly even five. When it gets above that then people start paying attention to it and saying actually I might to do something about this, rather than it just being part of this background noise that people can, to a large degree, tune out of.
LP: Yeah – it’s a very clever and way our brain has to filter out the necessary relevant information from the one that is not so relevant.
SJ: And that importance of green space, I think, also in in the research that I’ve read before, is that it always comes out – when people are under challenging circumstances – as one of their top 10 things that they miss, particularly if they’ve had to move or been relocated for some reason. That access to green space becomes a really important part of their lives, not just because of what the green space directly affords them but also the the secondary benefits of actually connecting with other people who also using that green space, and being in that environment.
LP: It’s a huge aspect of leisure but even in terms of living in and dwelling in green spaces there is very interesting recent study that was published by Exeter University and they looked at long-term well-being of people moving from a town area or not so green area to a greener area and they found that the the long-term benefit, the well-being benefits of moving houses is actually quite long [lasting] – it’s not quite going back to the baseline. And what’s really interesting is that they looked at three years [later] and the well-being remains quite high. So that’s a really good and interesting point towards our hypothesis that maybe the greener the better and probably the more effectively we can beat hedonic adaptation.
SJ: So tell me a little bit more about this interface – this app – that you’ve created and how it goes about measuring people’s mood and also their environments and how it is that you’re trying to join those two data sets together, and to what purpose.
LP: The app is a well-being tracker – we made sure that if people are going to participate in citizen science and download our app that in addition to participating in science they would also get benefits out of it. So the app will buzz our participants however many times they decide to be buzzed throughout the day, and it will ask questions such as, how do you feel right now, who’s with you, what activity are you engaged in, what does the environment look like at the moment, can you identify many or very few species, are you inside or outside? So, we’re trying to get a quite a clear picture of what’s going on and after a few notifications are filled in then the participant can take a look at their charts. So, what are the places that make them happier, who are the people that make them happier, and also what does their well-being look like across time. And we can split that across the last couple of days, the week, the month and even the years, if you’re willing to track your wellbeing for several years. So, it’s quite an interesting well-being tool.
On our site, on the research aspect, it’s really interesting because we also ask people some information about who they are, although the app is completely anonymous. We ask them where they grew up and how much they engage in nature so that we can know who are the individuals who might benefit more ,or if it’s a kind of ubiquitous effect that everyone, no matter where you grew up, or how much you naturally engage in or are enthusiastic about nature, and whether that that effects how much happier you feel in nature. So, we really try to make it both scientifically important and valid in answering an interesting question, as well as interesting for the users.
One very interesting feature I think for the users is the well-being across space. So, if you fill in more than ten notifications you get access to a map that shows you basically where you feel happier – so it’s like a heat map where you can see the dots in green where you are happy and other dots in red where you are a bit less happy and that’s a very fun function that is a little bit more technical and a little bit more interesting than usual research apps that just look into well-being.
SJ: Is it possible to see other people’s heat maps as well, if you give permission?
LP: No, unfortunately, that’s one of the projects we would really, really hope to get started as soon as we have more users. So, our big challenge at the moment is to expand the app and see if there is a big uptake amongst our users to see if it’s worth investing a little bit more development, and a little bit more features, a little bit more sharing, a little bit more of a game of different well-being questions, so that we can provide more diverse feedback. So, we’ll see – I mean, the output so far – we’re really proud of it because our users are growing and it’s starting to pick up and people are starting to give us interesting feedback and data but it’s in preliminary and early stages. We really look forward to see how many people will download Nature Buzz and keep using it.
SJ: Sure – and is this focus just on the UK audience at the moment or are you looking at this internationally?
LP: We’re looking at this internationally actually. So, our project in terms of understanding how much biodiversity there is in the environment, because we partnered up with the Zoology Department here at University of Cambridge, we’ll have a pretty detailed idea of the biodiversity in the UK so that we can relate it to well-being. But, eventually down the line, we would really much hope to do the same thing across the world and regardless of whether we have access to that data set yet it’s very relevant for us to look at it globally and to basically recruit as many users as we can.
SJ: I’m curious about your thinking about who you think would benefit most? Is it those people who perhaps access greenspace quite a lot of the time already and are quite connected, and then the lack of access for them actually has quite an impact upon them in a negative way? Or do you think it’s those people who aren’t getting enough connection to that outside and that diversity of exposure to different environments who could really benefit? Or is it somewhere in between – what were your thoughts around that?
LP: I think that anyone who is an enthusiast of nature – I mean, there’s going to be this liking effect. So, if my hobby personally is to dance or to do yoga, when I think about – even just think about – going to yoga I’m going to feel happy. So, I think this sample is definitely likely to have a strong correlation between nature and well-being. But where I’m most interested is to look into people who don’t naturally engage or are enthusiastic about nature because I find from the data that most people whom were asked across studies how they feel in nature, there’s a very strong calming effect. In a very interesting study on how people recovered when they were staying at the hospital, having a view on a green space versus a view against a wall, people who had view of the green space had quite a significant stronger recovery time – they recovered much faster, they felt a bit better and that was across people being enthusiastic about nature or not. So I’m guessing it’s impossible to prevent the nature enthusiasts not to have a fun and enjoyable time in nature but I think it’s quite a ubiquitous fact from the present literature, so I’m really looking forward to see whether I data set confirms that.
SJ: Yes, that would be fascinating to see whether this is actually an across-the-board [effect] and whether you’re an enthusiastic about nature or not, that actually being in or even merely thinking about being in nature has an effect upon your mood. So who should care about this research? if you are thinking about what the implications are, who should care about this?
LP: I think it’s important to change a little bit the way we think about conservation and protecting nature because there’s a lot of ‘we need it – we rely on nature for water and for climate regulation, for food’, and there’s also a little bit of guilt in terms of ‘we need to preserve nature because we destroy it’. And I think it’s really important to change that kind of guilt-loaded and need-based conservation of nature. I think we have to kind of spin it around and start saying, ‘it’s a little bit more about connection, it’s about reconnecting us to each other’, because nature does strengthen social ties – about being happier, more attentive, less stressed, more present, a little bit more calm, and it’s about taking up direct benefits, positive benefit from being in nature and we’re backing it up with evidence. We really need to start viewing the positive aspect of being in nature rather than just the need we derive from it. And I think it’s important to take that perspective in many domains viewing it as a growth-oriented approach rather then an economic fear or shame oriented direction. When we think about nature conservation, I think it’s really essential to take that positive perspective as well.
SJ: I think you’re right – it would be a really interesting flip in the way that we think about these things. I think you’ve already talked about the healing effects of merely seeing a green space and I think i’ve read some research we’re actually increases the speed of wound healing as well. So, you’re right i think that from an institutional point of view as well as from an individual point of view. if we could think about tapping into the powerful effects of green space and diversity of environment rather than being stuck in the same environment the whole time i think that that would be incredibly interesting. Do you have in mind who you think the consumers of your research data would be when you come out with your findings? Who should be caring about this and why would it be relevant to them?
LP: We very much aim to advise policymakers on how and why we design and manage landscape – I think that’s one of our main goals – to tell what data we have and say more diversity is benefiting us or not. You can’t just create more green space and that is it, that’s sufficient. But I think it’s very valuable policymaking data and base to help orient the way we manage landscape. My take-home message for what I got from running this study and building it would be that when we think about health, mental health and nature it would be wonderful to take a positive approach rather than something that is based on fear and guilt and approach it with a smile and look at its direct benefit and view it for how beautiful it is and and how positive it is and not as a burden.
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