Most of us associate their "Happy Place" with a natural environment - a feeling of serenity that is intrinsically linked with mountains, meadows, forests, fields or the sea. The value of nature experiences is receiving more attention from the scientific community than ever as we are looking for ways to understand and battle the human mental health crisis.
Around 30% of the world's human population have suffered from mental illness at least once during their lifetime. There is growing empirical evidence showing that nature experiences have beneficial psychological and physiological impacts, such as happiness, positive social interactions, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, improved manageability of life tasks, less mental stress, improved memory and attention, impulse inhibition and increased imagination and creativity. But why does spending time in nature have such impactful and positive effects on us? There are currently three main theories that are attempting to answer this question:
This theory suggests that human evolution has programmed a positive response to natural environments, supporting success and survival, causing us to have an intuitive emotional affiliation to other living beings.
Psychological Stress Recovery Theory (PSRT)
PSRT hypothesises that a positive emotional and physiological reaction to natural environments is connected to stress. Unthreatening natural environments provide a safe space to recover from a stressor.
Attention Restoration Theory (ART)
ART proposes that natural environments provide a restorative setting after prolonged or intense periods of directed attention and is driven by the need to recover from mental fatigue.
These three theories are not mutually exclusive and can often be applied together to explain the effects of nature experiences on human mental and physical health.
Interestingly, most scientific studies have investigated nature experiences in terrestrial environments, such as parks and forests. But what about spending time by or in the ocean? Research suggests that aquatic environments, like rivers, lakes or oceans, are preferred elements in natural settings. Underwater landscapes containing wildlife, also rated high in one study, but not quite as high as the above-water landscape. These studies have focussed exclusively on visual aspects and have not included auditory, tactile and olfactory factors, although recent research has started to address these modalities, too. Results have been so convincing that virtual reality settings have been recently introduced to care homes for the elderly and vulnerable.
Another consideration, which is specific to subaquatic experiences such as SCUBA diving, freediving and snorkelling, is the marine mammal diving reflex, which causes a reduced heart rate (more on this in another blog post) and may also contribute to the positive effects that spending time in water has on us.
It is an exciting field of research and from what we know so far, snorkelling is a great nature experience for both mental and physical health: It involves both above and below water landscapes and wildlife, it is light to moderate exercise and if done with appropriate supervision, it is very safe. So if you are coming to La Palma to "get away from it all" and are looking to relax from perhaps a stressful job, make sure that you book a snorkelling or skin diving experience with Oceanológico and we will make sure that you have a calm, relaxing and entirely enjoyable underwater experience.
(for a more comprehensive list of references, see Bratman et al. 2019.)
Bratman, G.N., Anderson, C.B., Berman, M.G., Cochran, B., De Vries, S., Flanders, J., Folke, C., Frumkin, H., Gross, J.J., Hartig, T. and Kahn, P.H., 2019. Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science advances, 5(7).
Cracknell, D., White, M.P., Pahl, S., Nichols, W.J. and Depledge, M.H., 2016. Marine biota and psychological well-being: a preliminary examination of dose–response effects in an aquarium setting. Environment and Behavior, 48(10), pp.1242-1269.
Mayer, F. S., Frantz, C. M. 2004. The connectedness to nature scale: A measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature. J. Environ. Psychol. 24, 503–515.
Shanahan, D.F., Bush, R. Gaston, K. J., Lin, B. B. , Dean, J. , Barber, E., Fuller, R. A. 2016. Health benefits from nature experiences depend on dose. Sci. Rep. 6, 28551.
Steel, Z., Marnane, C., Iranpour, C., Chey, T., Jackson, J.W., Patel, V. and Silove, D., 2014. The global prevalence of common mental disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis 1980–2013. International journal of epidemiology, 43(2), pp.476-493.
White, M.P., Cracknell, D., Corcoran, A., Jenkinson, G. and Depledge, M.H., 2014. Do preferences for waterscapes persist in inclement weather and extend to sub-aquatic scenes? Landscape Research, 39(4), pp.339-358.