Study: Exposure to nature improves well-being by expanding space perception and reducing impulsivity

Research published in PLOS One provides evidence that nature exposure improves well-being by expanding space perception, which in turn may reduce impulsive decision-making.

Numerous studies have linked exposure to nature with improved health and well-being. The new research helps explain some of the mechanisms underlying the nature-health connection.

In the study, 609 adults from across the United States completed a survey via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The researchers found an indirect effect of nature exposure on health via impulsive decision-making.

People who reported being closer to a park or nature preserve, lived in neighborhoods that were more green, and spent more time outdoors tended to have lower levels of impulsivity, which in turn was associated with improved health. This association held after controlling for the participants’ level of education and household income.

The researchers followed up their survey with an experiment on 66 undergraduate students. The students were randomly assigned to view either photographs of natural scenery or photographs of buildings, cities and roads while they completed a delay-discounting task.

Delay discounting is the tendency to take a smaller reward that is available immediately, rather than a larger reward that will be delivered in the future. In this case, the participants were asked whether they would prefer fewer number of days of improved air quality now, versus a greater number of days of improved air quality in the future.

A post-experiment survey revealed that participants who viewed the natural scenery were more likely to report that the space around them felt expanded. In addition, expanded space perception was linked to reduced impulsivity as measured by the delay-discounting task.

“The results of this study extend previous research by linking the indirect effects of nature exposure on health via impulsive decision-making and of nature exposure on impulsive decision-making via expanded space perception,” the researchers wrote in their study.

“These results may have important implications for our understanding of the effects of nature exposure on health outcomes by suggesting that with increased exposure to nature, impulsive decision-making, which might lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and reductions in overall well-being, might be reduced.”

The study, “How does nature exposure make people healthier?: Evidence for the role of impulsivity and expanded space perception“, was authored by Meredith A. Repke, Meredith S. Berry, Lucian G. Conway III, Alexander Metcalf, Reid M. Hensen, Conor Phelan.