The superpower of beaches and forests on mental health

by Aurelia Chaise

If you are currently organising your next summer holidays and hesitating between renting a cottage in Sussex or spending some time in the apartment of a friend in Santorini, keep reading! Claudia Damiano, MSCA Fellow working on the PSYNAT project, is investigating whether spending time in the countryside or on the coast is best for our mental health.

Claudia Damiano, in her own words

I am Canadian and obtained my Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of Toronto in 2019. Before that, I completed a Masters in Psychology (also from University of Toronto) in 2015, and a Bachelor of Arts and Science, majoring in Cognitive Science, at McGill University in 2014. I have been a postdoctoral researcher at KU Leuven since autumn 2019. My main area of research is at the junction of perception and cognition (for example, in broad terms, how does what we see influence how we behave?). More specifically, I focus on studying the visual features (e.g., symmetry, complexity) that contribute to the aesthetic pleasure of natural scenes.

Claudia Damiano

Have you ever wondered why it is so pleasant to walk barefoot in the grass, surrounded by trees and singing birds? Why do we feel fully recharged when we are by the sea, smelling the marine air along the coastline and gazing at the rolling waves? Scientists can explain what happens in our brain when we are close to nature.

Why it feels good to spend time out of town

A first theory, called the “Attention Restoration Theory”, suggests that nature has an influence on the two forms of human attention: bottom-up and top-down attention. Bottom-up attention is automatic and driven by the physical features of the environment (noticing a flickering light, for example), whereas top-down attention is a controlled form of attention (choosing to deliberately ignore the flickering light, for example). According to this theory, nature is able to capture bottom-up attention moderately. “Natural scenes trigger a form of attention that is undemanding and effortless, thus enabling people to rest and restore the more effortful forms of attention, resulting in a positive experience,” explains Claudia.

The second theory, the “Stress Reduction Theory”, suggests that nature reduces our stress levels, allowing us to restore attentional resources and to boost our mood. “According to the Stress Reduction Theory, people prefer natural scenes with views of food, water and shelter, and feel calm in such environments, because those were the safest environments in which humans evolved,” says Claudia. Conversely, she suggests that urban environments lead to more stress because they are relatively new, meaning that we still need to properly adapt to them.

Beaches versus forests

The PSYNAT project aims to further explore this bond between human wellbeing and nature. As the principal investigator of the project, Claudia expects that the project will help determine what types of natural environments are most beneficial to emotional wellbeing. In other words, do forests and beaches have the same “healing properties”? And if so, why?

Using virtual reality as an immersive experience

To reach the project’s goals, virtual reality (VR) will be used to create an immersive experience for the participants of the study, who will explore 360-degree videos of real-world environments, such as beaches, forests, lakes or waterfalls.

According to our interviewee, this technique is perfect for measuring the behaviours and the outcomes of human interaction with nature. “We will always compare the outcomes of people exploring nature to those of people exploring urban environments”

Before and after the immersive VR experience, participants will perform a series of tasks on the computer to measure their attention, working memory, and mood.

“During the VR experience, we will use the eye tracker in the VR headset, as well as a portable electroencephalography (EEG) headband, to record where participants look within the scene and what their brain activity is like. Eye tracking measurements will tell us how participants explore different types of scenes and what they pay attention to,” explains Claudia.

The project foresees that EEG measurements will unveil how “relaxed” a participant feels in different environments.

The consequences of lockdowns and isolation on mental health

The PSYNAT project aims also to focus on people who don’t have the opportunity to live close to green spaces or to take regular breaks in the countryside. With the many lockdowns over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant number of people have found themselves “trapped” in urban environments and tiny apartments. This situation can lead to very dire consequences for human mental health.

Claudia explains how she and the team of scientists will measure the long-term effects of this type of situation. “We decided to use deep convolutional neural networks (DCNNs), which are based on the connective architecture of the human brain, to study the potential impact of not seeing nature for long periods of time. To do this, we will use a pretrained DCNN that is trained to predict aesthetic pleasure labels from photographs of scenes, and we will retrain it by only showing it images of urban scenes”, she says.

For Claudia, the PSYNAT journey has just started. “Data collection is about to begin, so we will have some results soon.”

Meanwhile, we can look forward to learning whether we should book our next holidays at the beach or in the countryside to best recharge our batteries!

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