Thursday, 11 April

Terry Hartig (Uppsala University)
Restorative environments theory: Beyond the conventional narrative

Theory and experimentation on restorative effects of nature experience have given impetus to and supported research on nature and health. They have done so by offering answers to questions about how forests, parks, urban green spaces and other seemingly natural settings could come to provide such a broad spectrum of meaningful cumulative benefits for health, well-being, and development. Since its early days within environmental psychology, research on the restorative effects of nature experience has largely consolidated around a narrative that encompasses two contrasting theories: attention restoration theory, with its emphasis on a cognitive process of restoration, and stress reduction theory, with its emphasis on a psychophysiological process. In this presentation I will look beyond this conventional narrative. Specifically, I will address important gaps in the description of three of the main aspects of restoration: the condition from which a person can need restoration; features of the environment that support restoration; and outcomes that allow inferences about restoration having occurred. This extension of theorizing will broaden and yet further consolidate understanding of how nature experience serves restorative processes.

Louise Chawla (University of Colorado-Boulder)
Knowing nature in childhood: Placing cognition in social and environmental contexts

The burgeoning study of access to nature for public health and wellbeing is currently seeking to find doses of nature needed for different health benefits, including efficient cognitive processing. This information is important to guide clinical practice and the greening of schools and neighborhoods. Yet with children in particular, more is lost than gained by narrowing cognition to tests of attention, memory and problem-solving, important as these dimensions of functioning may be. Given freedom in natural areas, children know nature with full-bodied physicality and emotion, often within social relationships. Using the framework of ecological psychology and supplementing it with other research perspectives, this talk outlines different dimensions of knowing nature that can contribute to healthy development in childhood and adolescence. It suggests benefits that the natural world affords beyond opportunities that built environments provide. Following the capabilities approach to human development—that includes having an influence over one's environment and living in relationship with plants, animals and the world of nature as dimensions of a fully realized life—the talk concludes with examples of local and regional partnerships that give young people roles in regenerating natural areas and helping to define the types of nature spaces that meet their needs at different ages.

Agnes E. van den Berg (University of Groningen)
Aspects of natural environments that trigger positive responses to nature

People tend to respond more positively to natural than to built settings, but it remains unclear why. It has been suggested that positive responses to nature could be a remnant of millions of years of hominin evolution in natural environments, during which the human brain and sensory systems have become wired to respond positively to natural settings that supported survival. Such an evolutionary explanation is consistent with empirical observations showing positive affective responses to natural settings to be rapid, unconscious, and universal. However, there is as yet little known about the distinctive environmental features that trigger positive responses to nature, and the basic perceptual, neural and physiological processes that guide these responses. Learning more about these issues is important for two main reasons: First, if positive responses to nature can be related to distinct bodily processes and features of natural settings, this would support the credibility of nature as a source of well-being and health, by ruling out alternative explanations in terms of a learned response that can be acquired during vacations or other recreational experiences. Second, if we can isolate the active ingredients that make people respond positively to nature, these ingredients can be used to enhance the quality and healing properties of our living environment, both natural and built (e.g., through biophilic architecture). In this lecture, I will give an overview of recent insights into aspects of natural environment that trigger positive responses to nature. In particular, I will focus on fractals , phytoncides and microbes as active ingredients that have recently been examined by research of my own and other research groups.

Friday, 12 April

Nancy Wells (Cornell University)
The natural environment: challenge, inequity and resilience

The natural environment's impact on human health and well-being has been extensively documented. Access to nature and time outdoors have beneficial effects on numerous aspects of human well-being including mental health, attention, and physical health. And yet, some of the most vulnerable in our society often are most lacking in access to nature. This presentation considers nature through the lens of environmental equity. With a focus on those facing adversity or disadvantage, we consider nature as a resilience mechanism. To what extent does nature have differential impacts on health and functioning? For whom might nature access have the greatest impact? We will explore nature as a moderator in the context of stress, adversity and challenge; links to cognition; and implications for policy and design.

Marc Berman (University of Chicago)
Environmental neuroscience: Uncovering the extensive interactions between neurobiology, psychology, behavior and the environment

The physical environment that surrounds us has a profound impact on brain and behavior. Many studies have shown that brief interactions with natural environments can have profound impacts on cognition, affect and mental and physical health. Other studies have shown that interacting with more disorderly environments can lead to reduced self-control and that interacting with more natural environments may increase self-control. A full understanding of these effects has been lacking, limiting progress in terms of designing the physical environment in ways that may optimize human psychological functioning. In this talk I will present an environmental neuroscience framework for how we can understand how interactions with different physical environments alter cognitive and affective processing. This environmental neuroscience approach draws on work from the non-human animal literature as well as cutting-edge human neuroscience approaches (such as scale-free dynamics measures) to understand how perceiving the low-level features of different environmental stimulation (e.g., curved lines) may drive many of these environmental effects. The talk will close with future research directions for how this integrated approach may help us to understand just how the environment affects us and how we might alter the built environment to improve psychological functioning.

William Sullivan (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)
Landscapes and your brain

The conditions of modern living (work and life pressures) threaten the health and wellbeing of millions of Americans. There is mounting evidence, however, that exposure to green landscapes promote human health and wellbeing. In a variety of recent studies, scientists have found that exposure to green infrastructure dramatically reduces mental fatigue, irritability, impulsivity, and improves test scores and productivity. New evidence is emerging from the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging showing how landscapes impact brain functioning. I consider these recent findings and discuss the implications for, and importance of, having everyday contact with nature.

Harry Heft (Denison University)
Discussant
(No continuing education credits available for this session)