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How Nature Benefits Us Through All Our Senses

How Nature Benefits Us Through All Our Senses

As we are probably all aware, nature is good for us, and science is backing this up. Recent ZEALANDIA intern, Lara Franco, looked at the scientific evidence for how nature can benefit us through each of our five senses. 

Sight 

Dappled light falls on the babbling Te Mahanga Stream

"Te Mahanga stream" - photo art by Judi Lapsley Miller

One of the most famous studies about nature benefits is an experiment that compared patients in hospital who had a view of trees and those who had a view of a brick wall.  The patients with the view of trees went home sooner, felt better emotionally, and had fewer negative notes about their wellbeing from nurses.  Further studies that followed up this research found that other benefits of looking at nature include reduced anxiety and stress, lower heart rates, and increased attention.  

Some of these studies involved being out in nature, but some of them looked at views out of windows, and videos and photographs of nature.  While walks outdoors in nature showed stronger beneficial effects, the looking-only experiments did show benefits. So if you’re sitting at home, looking out the window at your lovely garden, rest assured, you’re doing yourself a world of good! And if you don’t have views of nature from your windows, you could put up some landscape photographs in your office or home. 

If you’re in front of a screen all day, try having a nature screensaver or background, and maybe watch some nature YouTube clips during regular breaks. 

Sound

[Click for soundscape of birdsong in the rain at ZEALANDIA, 1 min 45 sec]

Tīeke singing

Tīeke / saddleback singing, photo-art by Judi Lapsley Miller

Fewer studies have looked at how we benefit from the sounds of nature, but what there is, indicates that these are also good for us. 

Most excitingly, a study found that bird sounds allowed people to recover from stress more quickly.  This seemed to be strongest for people who enjoyed bird sounds - one person in the study who didn’t find bird sounds relaxing didn’t improve.  In a zoo experiment, scientists found that people thought a rainforest exhibit with accompanying rainforest sounds was much more pleasant than one without them.  People have also been found to prefer rural and botanical garden audio soundtracks over urban soundtracks.  Pretty obvious, right?  I mean, who likes to listen to a busy street?  In a study in America, 91% of people said a big reason they visit natural parks is to enjoy natural sounds, and the relaxing sound of running water has been cited as a reason for visiting rivers. 

So, if it’s listening to a nature soundtrack at home, or going out for a walk in nature, listen carefully to the natural world around you - you’ll be providing yourself with some relaxation and anti-stress benefits. 

Smell 

Honey-scented kohekohe

Cluster of kohekohe flowers hanging from the tree, by Judi Lapsley Miller

The long tradition of aromatherapy draws on the belief that smell affects mood and relaxation.  There are relatively few  scientific studies on smell, but these studies give us an idea of the benefits of smelling the wonders of nature. 

On a very cheery note, the odour of summer air (leaf alcohol) and beeswax were found to be connected to people feeling happier.  So, feeling glum?  Step outside and take a good whiff of a forest!  Some other odours, such as spiced apple and lavender were found to alter people’s brainwaves, as measured by an EEG machine.  It seems smells can affect our mood, but also the way that our brains work.  Psychologically, it’s believed that our preferences for certain odours are dependent on the value we place on the objects associated with these, which makes a lot of sense.  We like the smell of things we like - well, except for a wet dog, of course!   

We all know how good it feels to be walking along in a park and suddenly smell the wonderful scent of blooming flowers.  It cheers you up, makes you feel good.  And science is starting to back us up on this.  So, next time you’re walking around ZEALANDIA, take a good whiff and see what smells you can identify and how different it smells from more urban areas. 

Touch 

Follow the footsteps of this kiwi pukupuku as he tip-toes barefooted through the grass

Kiwi pukupuku (little spotted kiwi) foraging during the day, by Judi Lapsley Miller

A very long history of scientific experiments shows us that touch between humans is important.  But how is touching nature beneficial?  The only research I could find was about touching animals.  Research on dogs, birds, and turtles found that contact with animals was found to be more beneficial than looking at a landscape, and touching animals has consistently been shown to be good for our heart – that means blood pressure and heart rate.  Petting dogs is less stressful than talking to people, more relaxing than reading and can lower your heart rate, regardless of whether you like dogs or not.  There’s good reason animals are used as companion therapy for psychiatric patients.  And even if you’re not in psychological distress, a good interaction with a pet can make you feel better.   

There isn’t any research into how touching non-animal nature can affect us, but personally, I find walking barefoot through grass really relaxing and grounding, and touching soil while gardening to be really satisfying.  So, maybe these have benefits too.  How often do you think about the nature you’re touching and how nature is affecting you on a directly physical level?  Touch is good for us, so hug a human, pet a dog, and go out walking barefoot! 

Taste 

ZEALANDIA volunteer Jane Hall harvests carrots for use at Rātā Cafe

Volunteer harvests carrots from garden, by Judi Lapsley Miller

I can tell you, this was the most difficult one to research.  How often do we taste nature?  I mean, have you ever licked a tree?  So, I branched out a bit and looked at taste in general, at gardening, and at soil microbes.  They all connect to our mouths in the end, right? 

Taste is an interesting sense, because it provides us with information about the food we’re eating, and this is important.  For instance, sweet flavors are found to be likeable, while bitter flavors are not.  This is because bitter flavors can be indicative of toxins in food, so it’s our body trying to warn us not to eat them.  The emotions associated with the sense of taste tend to be positive, mostly associated with satisfaction, enjoyment, and desire.  We enjoy eating and for good reason - we’re wired for it!  Healthier, more natural food tends to be associated with less anxiety and depression than eating junk food, and growing your own food is found to have social and mental benefits.  People bond over the food they grow, as well as feeling empowered by it.  Perhaps most intriguingly, the soil microbes found on natural foods that we eat have been found to be linked with better physical and mental health, and improved immune function.  Eating certain kinds of soil bacteria on our food seems to be very good for us.  I know, ick, right?  But it’s true. 

Immature kawakawa leaves and fruits

Peppery kawakawa leaves and immature fruits, by Judi Lapsley Miller

Try to connect to the natural flavours of the foods you are eating - think about how good that apple you’re biting into tastes, or that lovely, ripe tomato.  It’s easy to take your sense of taste for granted, but next time you have a meal, really savour it. 

 

Story by Lara Franco, PhD Candidate (researching ‘the extinction of experience and human interactions with nature') and ZEALANDIA intern.
Photo-art, photography, and soundscapes by artist and sensory psychologist Judi Lapsley Miller.

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