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Study suggests exposure to trees, the sky and birdsong in cities beneficial for mental wellbeing

Posted on 10/01/2018
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Researchers at King’s College London, landscape architects J & L Gibbons and art foundation Nomad Projects have used smartphone-based technology to assess the relationship between nature in cities and momentary mental wellbeing in real time. They found that (i) being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing, and that (ii) the beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in those individuals with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues.

Their paper, ‘Urban Mind: Using Smartphone Technologies to Investigate the impact of Nature on Mental Wellbeing in Real Time’ has been published in BioScience today (Wednesday 10 January).

The researchers developed a smartphone-based app, Urban Mind, to examine how exposure to natural features in cities affects a person’s mental wellbeing.

The Urban Mind app monitored 108 individuals who collectively completed 3,013 assessments over a one-week period.

In each assessment, participants answered several questions about their current environment and momentary mental wellbeing. GPS-based geotagging was used to monitor their exact location throughout the 1-week trial.

The results showed significant immediate and time lagged associations with mental wellbeing for several natural features: trees, the sky and birdsong. These associations were still evident several hours after exposure to trees, the sky and birdsong had taken place, indicating time-lasting benefits.

The investigators were interested in whether the beneficial effects of nature might vary from one individual to another, depending on their risk of developing poor mental health. To assess this each participant was rated on “trait impulsivity” - a psychological measure of one’s tendency to behave with little forethought or consideration of the consequences, and a predictor of higher risk of developing addictive disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, antisocial personality disorder and bipolar disorder. This revealed that the beneficial impact of nature on mental wellbeing was greater in people with higher levels of trait impulsivity and a higher risk of developing mental health issues.

Dr Andrea Mechelli, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, said,  ‘These findings suggest that short-term exposure to nature has a measurable beneficial impact on mental wellbeing. The interaction of this effect with trait impulsivity is intriguing, as it suggests that nature could be especially beneficial to those individuals who are at risk of poor mental health. From a clinical perspective, we hope this line of research will lead to the development of low-cost scalable interventions aimed at promoting mental health in urban populations.’

Johanna Gibbons and Neil Davidson, landscape architects at J & L Gibbons, said, ‘Right now decisions on urban planning and design aimed at improving mental healthtend to be based on “conventional wisdom”, due to the lack of robust scientific data. Our findings provide a much-needed evidence base for the benefits of nature within urban centres. From the perspective of urban planning and design, we hope the results will inform future investments and policies, helping build heathier cities’.

Michael Smythe, an artist and action-based researcher at Nomad Projects, comments, ‘This study represents a successful example of how smartphone technologies can be employed as a tool for citizen science. It also demonstrates the value of academic and non-academic researchers coming together to carry out truly cross-disciplinary work with tangible real-world implications’.

Lucia Robertson, a participant on the project, said, ‘Using the Urban Mind app made me more aware of my surroundings and how these affect my state of mind. It encouraged me to think hard about what kind of city I want to live in’.

Notes to editors

Ioannis Bakolis, Ryan Hammoud, Michael Smythe, Johanna Gibbons, Neil Davidson, Stefania Tognin, Andrea Mechelli, Urban Mind: Using Smartphone Technologies to Investigate the impact of Nature on Mental Wellbeing in Real Time, will be published in Bioscience on Wednesday 10 January.

This project was sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) with support from Van Alen Institute and the Sustainable Society Network+.

Ioannis Bakolis and Andrea Mechelli are supported by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London. Ioannis Bakolis is supported by the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South London at King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

For a copy of the paper, or to arrange an interview with the researchers, please contact:  Alex Booth, Interim Communications Manager, NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), alex.booth@kcl.ac.uk and 020 7848 0495.

Urban Mind

Urban Mind is an app that measures your experience of city living in the moment. By collecting real-time data, the researchers are able to understand how different aspects of the urban environment affect mental wellbeing. The researchers hope the results will inform future urban planning and social policy aimed at improving design & health. urbanmind.info/ 

Twitter: twitter.com/Urban_Mind_Proj

Facebook: facebook.com/UrbanMindProject/
Instagram: instagram.com/urban_mind_project/

The researchers will be launching an updated version of the Urban Mind app in March 2018. This new version will be translated in multiple languages, and used for a large-scale international study in healthy participants and clinical populations. 

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate. By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via RCUK. epsrc.ac.uk/

Van Alen Institute

At Van Alen Institute, we believe design can transform cities, landscapes, and regions to improve people’s lives. We collaborate with communities, scholars, policymakers, and professionals on local and global initiatives that rigorously investigate the most pressing social, cultural, and ecological challenges of tomorrow. Building on more than a century of experience, we develop cross-disciplinary research, provocative public programs, and inventive design competitions. www.vanalen.org/

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR): improving the health and wealth of the nation through research. Established by the Department of Health, the NIHR:

  • funds high quality research to improve health
  • trains and supports health researchers
  • provides world-class research facilities
  • works with the life sciences industry and charities to benefit all
  • involves patients and the public at every step

For further information, visit the NIHR website www.nihr.ac.uk 

King’s College London kcl.ac.uk

King's College London is one of the top 25 universities in the world (2017/18 QS World University Rankings) and among the oldest in England. King's has more than 26,500 students (of whom nearly 10,400 are graduate students) from some 150 countries worldwide, and nearly 6,900 staff. The university is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) King’s was ranked 6th nationally in the ‘power’ ranking, which takes into account both the quality and quantity of research activity, and 7th for quality according to Times Higher Education rankings. Eighty-four per cent of research at King’s was deemed ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ (3* and 4*). The university is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of more than £600 million.

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: kingshealthpartners.org.

Limitations

The research has a number of limitations. Firstly, because the data was acquired using observational rather than an experimental design, it was not possible to establish whether the observed associations between nature and mental wellbeing reflect a direct causal impact of the former on the latter. For example, people who already feel low may be less likely to leave the home and experience natural habitat.

However, the observation of time-lagged effects, in which the beneficial effects of nature could still be detected after the participant was no longer exposed to trees, the sky and birdsong, provides indirect support to our interpretation that nature had a beneficial impact on mental wellbeing.

Secondly, the present investigation relied on self-reports which are known to be prone to potential bias. For example, people with lower levels of mental health tend to pay greater attention to negative than positive stimuli. For example, someone with low mental wellbeing might have paid more attention to aversive traffic sounds than sounds of birds or water.

Thirdly, our sample comprised of smartphone users with higher than average level of education and an average age of just 31.1 years, and therefore cannot be considered representative of the general population.

Future studies would benefit from recruiting a more diverse sample and investigating how the results change as a function of demographic and socioeconomic factors. This could be achieved, for example, through the use of “ambassadors” from a wide range of demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds who could disseminate the project and promote participation amongst their peers and communities. 

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