Overview

Natural environments have been found to enhance human health not only by promoting physical activity, but also by exposure to nature, which, it has been argued, humans have become increasingly dislocated from during the 20th and 21st centuries. The impact is so pronounced that people who view natural habitats outside their windows have lower stress levels than those who see built environments. As mental health disorders affect most people during their lives, there is a clear need to understand the links between green space and enhanced health, especially at a time when natural habitat is being eroded in our most populated areas.

Nevertheless, most research in this field has focused on people’s visual habitats. Many studies have correlated indicators of mental health with starkly-contrasting visual variables such as grassland vs woodland or vegetation vs concrete. But humans experience their surroundings through sound, smell, vision and touch; and input from each of these sensory channels may amplify, modify and/or override the others. Moreover, broad habitat classes disguise important variability in the plant and animal species that are present; in seasonal changes, and in the colour, complexity, sounds and smells that fill natural habitats.

Many of the theories of how exposure to natural environments enhances health propose that humans are ‘hardwired’ by their evolutionary history to derive benefits from the habitats that enhanced the survival of early humans. Such theories are based on a static view of the environments in which humans evolved and the relationship between environment and key features of human-like morphology and life history. Thus, despite a substantial literature there is only limited work examining nature-health attribution and dosage and importantly no study has quantified the full range of health-nature outcomes from an evolutionary perspective focusing on affordance and affective outcomes.

This PhD will develop new ideas on the evolutionary origins and nature of the relationship between humans and natural environments. By developing new techniques to reveal human’s evolutionary ecology in relationship to their health and wellbeing, the project fits centrally within NERC’s ‘Environment and Health’ and ‘Science Based Archaeology’ research areas and their cross-disciplinary mental health research agenda.

Nature in city - a view of the skyline of Birmingham

Methodology

Conduct literature reviews of human evolutionary ecology and the links between landscapes and human mental/physical health

Use the above to guide the creation of targeted experiments on human wellbeing and environmental variability (such as light intensity, colour spectrum, sounds etc.) at the landscape level;

Develop existing wearable bio-sensing technologies to build an integrated, synchronised multisensory tool to measure participants sensory experience and physiological responses as they move through green spaces;

Develop indices to classify different natural habitats and key features (e.g. indicators of wildlife and key plant species);

Employ ethnographic techniques to establish what participants perceive in natural environments (to compare to actual and experienced environments obtained in 2 and 3 above);

Employ a range of measures to quantify changes in mental/physical health including salivary cortisol, heart rate, and self assessment questionnaires and post experiment interviews.

 

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to CENTA research themes. 

The supervisory team is highly interdisciplinary and will provide training in human evolutionary ecology, the development and use of bio-sensing equipment, habitat classification, sample design, data capture and analysis, ethnography and qualitative analysis.

 

Timeline

Year 1: Literature review of: 1) previous studies of the beneficial effects of nature on human health including the theories driving the research area and 2) the evolutionary ecology of modern humans and their ancestors over the last 5 million years. Begin development, integration and pilot studies of technologies to measures sensory experiences of natural habitats and linked physiological responses, based on evolutionary concepts.

Year 2: Finalisation of experimental equipment. Development of indices to classify components of natural environment. Complete experimental design and undertake of a series of experiments on human’s sensory ecology.

Year 3: Use results to date to refine and complete experiments. Write and publish resulting papers.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

In this project, we will create new multidisciplinary collaborations (across the biological and social sciences) and new technologies and tools to address intractable questions about the evolutionary trajectory and link between human health and the natural environment. We do not currently have a CASE partner for this project, but one may develop during the course of the project.

Further Details

We expect candidates to have a Merit or Distinction at MSc level in a relevant subject. Experience in relevant geographical, biological or biomechanical techniques would be very beneficial, to support the integration of the bio sensing technologies.

Dr Susannah Thorpe

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

S.K.Thorpe@bham.ac.uk

Prof Jon Sadler

School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

University of Birmingham

j.p.sadler@bham.ac.uk

Dr Phil Jones

School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

University of Birmingham

p.i.jones@bham.ac.uk