An Environmental Neuroscience Perspective on the Benefits of Nature


Environmental neuroscience is a field which uses multiple scales of analysis to elucidate the ways in which the physical environment interacts with neural processing to affect behavior. One environment that is heavily studied by environmental neuroscientists is the natural environment and how interacting with more natural environments (e.g., a city park) may benefit psychological functioning. This multidisciplinary environmental neuroscience approach examines processes and factors that vary across temporal and spatial scales. Most research studies examining the effects of interacting with natural environments on individuals’ neural processing and behavior fall into what we term meso-scale studies, which consist of real or simulated nature exposure on the order of minutes to hours. These are typically laboratory studies which attempt to quantify the effects of nature in an experimental setting. Macro-scale studies examine the effects of nature/green space exposure on people across large populations (e.g., a city) over long durations (e.g., on the order of years). These studies are typically observational but speak to the ecological validity of the meso-scale studies. Micro-scale studies tend to examine the specific elements of natural environments that may lead to the psychological benefits of interacting with nature, such as the low-level visual and acoustic features of nature and how perceiving those features may lead to cognitive benefits. Though immense progress has already been made in these domains, we propose that rapid advancements will be made through the increased use of methods that can span temporal and spatial scales and with more rigorous neuroimaging research, which may identify the neural mechanisms which drive these behavioral effects. We conclude with a brief discussion for how adopting an environmental neuroscience perspective can be of value to other fields of research, such as urban planning and environmental conservation.

Nature and Psychology : Biological, Cognitive, Developmental, and Social Pathways to Well-being