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Autism and Biophilia: the impact of natural scenes on anxiety (MELVIN_PSY23SENSS)

   School of Psychology

About the Project

Project background

Biophilia is the hypothesis that a love of plants and nature is not a learned trait, but rather a genetically-based affinity that evolved over the course of human evolution (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). We seek out nature – hikes, pets, house plants, etc. – because of an inborn attraction to external life. Empirical studies suggests that spending time in nature, or even within sight of nature, can be placative, reducing the physiological indicators of stress and facilitating physical and emotional wellbeing (Ulrich et al., 1991; Hartig et al., 2003; Yin, J. et al, 2020). There is currently very little research exploring biophilia in relation to autism - a developmental disability impacting how an individual processes the information around them and how they interact with the world (World Health Organisation, 2020). 

Autistic individuals are at increased risk of mental health disorders, particularly anxiety (Hollocks et al., 2018). Little is currently known about how or why biophilia may benefit the autistic population who can struggle with urban environments; with sensory sensitivities and challenges being characteristic of an autistic profile. While there is a small amount of literature investigating autism in relation to building design, sensory rooms and/or spaces, the wider literature of autism in relation to nature and its potential to impact anxiety has not been extensively explored. 

Project aims and objectives

The aim of the proposed studentship is to explore how biophilia can be used to help reduce anxiety for people with autism. This will be done through two experimental studies and a final applied study. The two experiments will look at whether a particular type of natural environment (biome) is preferred (e.g., fields, fields & trees, trees & water, etc.) and how ‘immersive’ the environment needs to be for the physiological reductions in stress to occur. The experiments will compare an autistic sample to a non-autistic sample and use virtual reality to explore alternative modalities to a fully immersive natural experience (i.e. being outside in a field or forest, etc.). A final applied study will use the identified biomes and preferred modalities from the two experiments to trial run a small behavioural intervention study exploring the potential of biophilia to reduce anxiety and improve wellbeing in autistic individuals.

The study objectives are:

1.        To identify preferred natural environments (biomes) of autistic and non-autistic individuals and any positive effect of biophilic exposure on anxiety.

2.        To investigate the optimal modality for biome exposure for reducing anxiety, including immersivity of experience, in autistic and non-autistic individuals.

3.        To explore the feasibility of a using an individualised biophilic therapy intervention to reduce anxiety and improve wellbeing in autistic individuals.


Two applications are required by the deadline, one to UEA for the PhD place[DC(-S1] , and one to SeNSS for the funding application[DC(S2] .


where poss: https://www.uea.ac.uk/apply/postgraduate/research


Funding Notes

This project has been selected for funding by the SeNSS ESRC DTP.
The successful candidate will be awarded an ESRC studentship that pays tuition fees, a stipend (£17,668 p.a. for 2022/23), and funding to support research and training costs. Funding may be awarded for four years if the successful candidate needs to undertake a Master’s degree before the PhD, or for 3-3.5 years for the PhD alone, depending on training needs.
Unfortunately, no additional funds are available to assist with relocation or visa costs.


Kellert, S.R. and Wilson, E.O. (1993) The Biophilia Hypothesis,;
Hartig, T. et al. (2003) Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. J Environ Psychol 23, 109–123
Hollocks, M.J. et al. (2018) Psychological Medicine Anxiety and depression in adults with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. DOI: 10.1017/S0033291718002283
Ulrich, R.S. et al. (1991) Stress Recovery During Exposure to Natural and Urban Environments, 11
World Health Organization ICD-11 for Mortality and Morbidity Statistics, 2020. (2020) , https://icd.who.int/browse11/l-m/en
Yin, J. et al. (2020) Effects of biophilic indoor environment on stress and anxiety recovery: A between-subjects experiment in virtual reality. Environ Int 136.

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