PhD Studentship: Benefits of human exposure to nature: a multi-sensory examination of evolutionary drivers
Natural environments have been found to enhance human health not only by promoting physical activity, but also by exposure to nature, which, it has been argued, humans have become increasingly dislocated from during the 20th and 21st centuries. The impact is so pronounced that people who view natural habitats outside their windows have lower stress levels than those who see built environments. As mental health disorders affect most people during their lives, there is a clear need to understand the links between green space and enhanced health, especially at a time when natural habitat is being eroded in our most populated areas.
Nevertheless, most research in this field has focused on people’s visual habitats. Many studies have correlated indicators of mental health with starkly-contrasting visual variables such as grassland vs woodland or vegetation vs concrete. But humans experience their surroundings through sound, smell, vision and touch; and input from each of these sensory channels may amplify, modify and/or override the others. Moreover, broad habitat classes disguise important variability in the plant and animal species that are present; in seasonal changes, and in the colour, complexity, sounds and smells that fill natural habitats.
Many of the theories of how exposure to natural environments enhances health propose that humans are ‘hardwired’ by their evolutionary history to derive benefits from the habitats that enhanced the survival of early humans. Such theories are based on a static view of the environments in which humans evolved and the relationship between environment and key features of human-like morphology and life history. Thus, despite a substantial literature there is only limited work examining nature-health attribution and dosage and importantly no study has quantified the full range of health-nature outcomes from an evolutionary perspective focusing on affordance and affective outcomes.
This PhD will develop new ideas on the evolutionary origins and nature of the relationship between humans and natural environments. By developing new techniques to reveal human’s evolutionary ecology in relationship to their health and wellbeing, the project fits centrally within NERC’s ‘Environment and Health’ and ‘Science Based Archaeology’ research areas and their cross-disciplinary mental health research agenda.
Conduct literature reviews of human evolutionary ecology and the links between landscapes and human mental/physical health
Use the above to guide the creation of targeted experiments on human wellbeing and environmental variability (such as light intensity, colour spectrum, sounds etc.) at the landscape level;
Develop existing wearable bio-sensing technologies to build an integrated, synchronised multisensory tool to measure participants’ sensory experience and physiological responses as they move through green spaces;
Develop indices to classify different natural habitats and key features (e.g. indicators of wildlife and key plant species);
Employ ethnographic techniques to establish what participants perceive in natural environments (to compare to actual and experienced environments obtained in 2 and 3 above);
Employ a range of measures to quantify changes in mental/physical health including salivary cortisol, heart rate, and self assessment questionnaires and post experiment interviews.
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