In a small lab in Weston Hall, psychology student Jayden Kennison wears a head net of laser source and detection fibers and watches a series of photographs displayed on a computer screen. She sees a sunrise through forest trees, a tornado sweeping through a field, a majestic mountain scene, congested city traffic and smog, a skyline of skyscrapers. At a nearby computer, grad student Haylee Snyder ’22 BS watches Jayden’s brain react. 

“Her brain is responding to these scenes whether she wants it to or not,” says psychology Professor Jon Barch ’99 BS, ’01 MS as they estimate changes in brain activity on the monitor, measured by the Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) probes detecting the amount of oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin in her blood flowing to and from her medial pre-frontal cortex, as a proxy for neural activity. An increase of neural activity in this region indicates more self-focused thinking.

“This is our first neurological measure of nature’s connection with wellbeing in this lab!” Snyder exclaims. “What did you just think about Jayden?” 

“What I want for lunch,” Jayden jokes. But she can’t fool neurology. According to her brain and physiology, she was having less self-focused thoughts in response to the nature photos, and more self-focused reactions to the urban images, which may explain other findings of nature increasing prosocial behavior. 

This research relates to the biophilia hypothesis— believed to be an innate connection to the earth, when a human body reacts to the experience or visualization of nature with feelings of awe, calmness, satisfaction with life, and a positive, community-oriented attitude. Previous research has also shown that nature makes people feel less extrinsic—meaning materialistic—valuing things like money and fame, which are associated with stressful mental reactions.

“Urban photos may create stress because of ‘the rat race,’” Barch said. “The nature/urban difference is largely the nature benefit, not necessarily that the urban is bad – it just reminds us of work, stress, money—the external goals. When walking in urban environment, our brains are forced to process more—the cars, blinking lights, beeping—it’s unnatural for our bodies. Not to mention the constant attention demands of the digital world. Humans have been forest creatures for 99% of our existence. Our neurological system gets relaxed when we leave the built environment. Nature provides a restoration effect.”

Similar studies have shown that there is an attentional restorative effect in nature, that can be helpful for people with ADHD, or decrease rumination on negative thoughts for people with depression,” said Barch, who points to studies of healing effects of something as simple as having plants in hospitals, which can reduce pain, medication and the length of hospital stays. 

But why does nature evoke intrinsic life goals and enhance wellbeing? 

“That’s the goal of this study,” said Snyder. “Does nature make us think less about ourselves, and make us think of the world as a whole and all of the creatures that live in it? That is known as self-diminishment—which sounds bad, but it’s good thing, like I’m part of something in the world that is bigger than me. We are looking for neurological evidence—maybe it’s something else—but what we’re hoping to see through our data is when we show nature images, activity in the medial prefrontal cortex decreases, indicating that we’re thinking about ourselves less.”

There is a biochemical aspect of this as well, Barch explained. “Taking walks in a forest is not only enjoying the good smells, but chemicals are entering your body and affecting your immune system.” 

Snyder sees many more ways this research could be put into action. “Ideally the goal of my thesis proposal is to find neurological evidence as to why nature exposure makes people kinder and think about ourselves less. Right now we’re in a pretty weird state in the world—climate change for one. One of the ways we can combat that is working together, combining the collective whole. More parks, more accessibility and more houseplants in Congress [they laugh] can help us all get more connected to where we’ve come from, and take care of the planet and each other, because we are part of the planet.”

Personally, Snyder said, “This research has changed my attention about how I interact with nature. What can I do to add more nature to my life and the people around me? Now I make it a priority, not something to do if I have time. It’s a necessity.” They added that it has been a dream to be able to pick out what they are going to research, to do their own study, and find the answers for themselves instead of waiting for someone else to publish the results.

More studies are on the horizon in Barch’s lab, including activities for students to more intentionally explore the U.P.’s nature to increase wellbeing, belongingness and impactful collaboration.

By Rebecca Tavernini '11 MA