Does nature have a lasting positive effect on the mind?

What types of nature-inspired design elements are most effective?

February 05, 2018 |

Intuition tells us that views of and exposure to the outdoors are good for the human mental state. In recent years, a handful of scientific studies—most notably Heschong Mahone’s daylighting in schools research—has provided AEC teams with important data to back up design decisions around daylighting, views, biophilic design, and a stronger connection with nature.

As a result of these early studies—and our improved understanding of the human mind—building owners and real estate developers have invested considerably to inject nature into their building projects. From hospitals to schools to office buildings, nature has become big business in new construction and renovation work. Landscaped terraces, rooftop gardens, nature meditation rooms, living walls, healing gardens, on-site parks, walking paths, therapy gardens—these are de rigueur in the modern built environment.

But how much “nature” is needed on projects? Is more always better when it comes to these features and spaces? And what types of nature-inspired design elements are most effective? Considering that these components often require special maintenance procedures and staff and ongoing operational investment, it’s important to explore these questions.

New research from King’s College London, published in the peer-review journal BioScience, sheds some light on the subject. It also provides a method by which AEC teams can assess the effectiveness of nature-inspired features.

Using a custom smartphone app, Urban Mind, the research team monitored the momentary mental well-being of 108 city dwellers, who completed 3,013 “ecological momentary assessments” during a one-week period. Each participant was asked to complete seven assessments per day. Questions included: Are you indoors or outdoors? Can you see trees? Can you see the sky? Can you hear birds singing?

Among the findings: There is a “significant” lagging effect of nature on momentary mental well-being. That is, nature has a lasting positive effect on the mind.

How long exactly? It depends. The data shows, for example, that seeing trees and seeing the sky during an assessment had a statistically significant effect on momentary well-being in the next subsequent assessment, which took place an average of two hours and 25 minutes later. For those “feeling in contact with nature,” the positive mental well-being spike lingered as long as four hours and 50 minutes. Same for “hearing birds singing.” The lingering benefit of “seeing or hearing water” was not as statistically significant.

Obviously, more research is needed in this area, but the study’s basic conclusions could help AEC teams make better-informed decisions about nature-inspired design. For instance, can building design features amplify or extend this lagging positive effect? Is a three-acre healing garden overkill when one acre will do? Do we need more birds chirping inside buildings (please, no!)?

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