Our relationship with nature is vital to mental well-being: Scientists have tracked how we are affected by exposure to trees, the sky, birdsong in real-time
01/20/2018 // Zoey Sky // Views

City life is often fast-paced, and you might feel overwhelmed because of all the hustle and bustle. Some individuals resort to the calming effect of nature to deal with the stress of city life, and the mere sight of birds in flight or sunlight shining through trees is enough to make them feel at peace.

A group of researchers at King's College London have teamed up with J & L Gibbons (landscape architects) and art foundation Nomad Projects to develop "smartphone-based technology" to study "the relationship between nature in cities and momentary mental [well-being] in real time."

The scientists created "Urban Mind," a smartphone-based app, which was used to study how being exposed to nature can influence the mental health of an individual. The app monitored 108 people who also accomplished 3,013 assessments within seven days.

The participants answered several questions about their current environment and momentary mental health for each assessment. Urban Mind accurately monitored their location for the one-week trial via GPS-based geotagging.

According to the findings, there were considerable "immediate and time-lagged associations" with mental health related to several natural features, namely "trees, the sky, and birdsong." These associations were still apparent even after a handful of hours have passed by since the individuals were exposed to the natural features, which points to their long-lasting benefits. (Related: Research shows that spending time with nature has extensive mental health benefits.)

The researchers wanted to look into the possibility that the positive effects of nature could vary per person, and that this might depend on their "risk of developing poor mental health."


This risk was measured via a rating for each app user's "trait impulsivity," or the "psychological measure of one's tendency to behave with little forethought or consideration of the consequences, and a predictor of higher risk of developing addictive disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, antisocial personality disorder and bipolar disorder." Ratings for the participant's trait impulsivity confirmed that the positive effects of nature on mental health was indeed higher in those with higher trait impulsivity levels and have a greater chance of being diagnosed with mental health issues.

Dr. Andrea Mechelli, Department of Psychosis Studies, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London, said that from a clinical perspective, further studies could help create "low-cost, scalable interventions" that can hopefully promote mental health awareness in individuals who live in the city.

Johanna Gibbons and Neil Davidson, landscape architects at J & L Gibbons, adds that because of the lack of pertinent scientific data, decisions concerning urban planning and design that can help improve mental health often relies on "conventional wisdom." The results of this study can add to a necessary "evidence base" that can promote the benefits of nature in urban areas. Gibbons and Davidson continued, "From the perspective of urban planning and design, we hope the results will inform future investments and policies, helping build healthier cities."

Michael Smythe, an artist and action-based researcher at Nomad Projects, shares that the study helped illustrate the possible benefits of using smartphone technologies as a tool for citizen science (crowd-sourced) science. Urban Mind also highlights the importance of collaborations between academic and non-academic researchers who wish to combine "cross-disciplinary work with tangible real-world implications."

Lucia Robertson, a participant for the study, concluded "Using the Urban Mind app made me more aware of my surroundings and how these affect my state of mind. It encouraged me to think hard about what kind of city I want to live in."

How does nature impact our mental health?

If you're stressed out because of city life, read the points listed below to learn more about the benefits of enjoying various natural features:

  1. Nature can positively influence your overall health. Taking a beautiful view can reduce your blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.
  2. Nature can help you deal with pain. Something in our genetic programming makes us think that "trees, plants, water, and other natural elements" are engrossing.
  3. Nature can improve your mood. Being outside can help you calm down and feel more balanced.

You can learn more about the benefits of nature, meditation, and mental health at Mind.news.

Sources include:



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