We are now all too familiar with the fact that we are living in uncertain and stressful times, with many of us unable to go on holidays or social gatherings. However, (at least for the UK at this time of writing), still getting out into the fresh air is highly recommended, even when social distancing. We all know that a trip into the woods or to the beach makes us feel better, but can we actually measure this? Alex Smalley is doing just that – he is currently investigating the psychological benefits of the outdoors, and if we can use “virtual nature” treatments to improve the health of those who cannot make it outside – a topic especially pertinent to the COVID-19 outbreak now!
Hey Alex! tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a PhD student at the University of Exeter. I’m trying to understand how digital experiences of nature can impact wellbeing, and hope to develop an invention which harnesses this therapeutic potential. I’m funded by the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, and based in Truro, Cornwall.
Your studies have transitioned from environmental research into public health, linking the natural world with aspects of wellbeing. What piqued your interest in the intersection between these two fields?
I’ve always had a very close connection to nature. I grew up in the verdant fields and deserted beaches of Norfolk, where my parents encouraged me to spend a great deal of time outdoors. Through these early experiences, I forged a tight bond with the natural world, but I never considered it might also have been impacting my health and wellbeing.
I studied atmospheric physics at university, before developing a career in science communication. Since 2011 I’ve been based at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, a research hub examining the links between the environment and health. Working across a broad range of disciplines, this role indoctrinated me into the science underpinning the relationship between nature and health. My colleagues’ infectious enthusiasm for their work, along with my own burgeoning interest in the field, made it inevitable that I would want to develop and answer my own research questions.
Can you tell us how natural environments are good for our physical and mental health? Do you think we should place a value on the aesthetic and emotional side of nature as a quantifiable ecosystem service?
A large body of work suggests positive links between the environment and health. Whilst natural environments can provide opportunities for physical activity, I’m more interested in their psychological effects.
Spending time in nature can help people recover from two conditions prevalent in the 21st century: stress and cognitive fatigue. Experiments have repeatedly shown that short ‘doses’ of nature can reduce physiological markers of stress, such as cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate. They’ve also demonstrated that natural environments can lead to significant improvements in performance and mood. What’s most intriguing for me is that we observe these effects when people are simply viewing digital versions of nature – such as photographs, videos, and audio recordings.
I think that academics who focus on the aesthetic and therapeutic value of landscapes have long argued for us to value the ‘service’ these environments provide. Although the field of environmental psychology attempts to quantify these effects in ways which economists and planners can build into their models, I think we need the qualitative and quantitative fields to come together to truly preserve and protect spaces for both the health of ecosystems and humans.
Tell me about bluehealth and the VR work in that project.
BlueHealth is examining the links between urban aquatic environments and health. It’s an international project with 9 partners across Europe and brings together diverse skill sets, from epidemiologists to landscape architects.
I worked with Nicky Yeo and our partners at Lund University, Sweden, on the virtual reality component of this project, which focused on using VR to bring blue spaces to older people in care homes. Previous work has shown that blue spaces might be particularly good at providing restoration, but this project was also interested in how VR might help older people overcome feelings of boredom. This study really opened my eyes to the potential of VR as a therapeutic intervention, the results of which are currently in press.
Tell us all about the Forest 404 experiment (massive fan here)! How did it all come about, and what have you learnt so far?
We worked with the BBC to create Forest 404, which was an amazing opportunity to engage audiences in important environmental debates. A team from BBC Radio 4 worked with the writer Timothy X Atack to produce the drama, which has now won two major awards (Prix Europa, 2019; WGGB, 2020). The series is set in a future world where the extinction of environmental experience and shifting baseline syndrome have been taken to the extreme: the eradication of natural environments; the technological replacement of ecosystem services; and a mass displacement of nature from cultural history.
The series gave us an amazing platform to mobilise audience participation, and we designed an experiment to understand how therapeutic people find listening to the sounds of nature. This is an important area for us to understand better, since most of the theories underpinning nature restoration focus on vision as the primary sensory response. Yet we know that spending time in nature is a rich multi-sensory experience, and that natural soundscapes are a vital part of this mix. Sounds are also very easy to work with, so when we’re thinking about bringing digital nature to people, audio could be a very useful tool.
7,600 people took part in the experiment, which is a remarkable number for this kind of research. We’re busy analysing the findings now and the importance of memories and lived experience is coming through very strongly. But I can’t give more away until we’ve published our findings!
For those yet to listen to it, can you give us a brief synopsis of the Forest 404 podcast storyline? What was it like to work with such amazing writers and actors?
It was incredible to work with the brilliant teams at the BBC, University of Bristol and Open University on this project. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, so you’ll have to head over to BBC Sounds to listen in full!
What is next for Forest 404?
Forest 404 will be broadcast again from April 2020, this time on BBC Radio 4. We are reopening the experiment too, so people who missed out last time can take part and help us generate even more data on the restorative potential of the natural world.
You are definitely an avid science communicator! How important is the immersive aspect of science communication, such as podcasts and VR, needed for inspiring individuals?
I think Forest 404 really demonstrated the need to be creative when trying to engage people in the issues our societies and environments currently face. People can tire very quickly of environmental messages of doom and gloom, especially when they feel helpless or disconnected. Forest 404 dealt with a lot of issues implicitly, and by immersing people in a future world which is a very different – yet entirely plausible – extrapolation of our own; it demonstrated how to create a very effective communication tool.
I have to ask… What is your favourite soundscape or natural environment to experience? Are you on team ‘green exercise’ or ‘blue health’?
I live a stone’s throw from the beach in Cornwall, so I have ocean sounds on tap, which I love. But that proximity to the coast means I often crave the sounds of green spaces. I seek out the dawn chorus and the songs of wrens, robins, and song thrushes whenever I can. I’ve recently been listening to a digital recording of the heady sounds of a corn field in August. Its clicking crickets, buzzing bees, and softly rustling grasses instantly take me to a hot summer’s afternoon in Norfolk.
The climate has changed rapidly in the last couple of decades. Could you leave us with any last words of wisdom concerning the conservation of natural areas?
The extinction of experience looms large in these conversations. Humans are increasingly clustered in urban environments and the result is that their contact with nature is ever more impoverished. How do we motivate people to care for, protect, and interact with a natural world they rarely encounter? My work is certainly not seeking to replace real trees with their digital counterparts, and part of my focus is figuring out how we make virtual nature a place which instils a curiosity to discover experiences in the real world. We need to foster these relationships early and work to preserve and enhance nature, both for the health of the planet and for our own wellbeing.