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Understanding the Temporal and Cognitive-Emotional Context of Human-Nature Interactions (based at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge)

Project Description

There is a growing body of evidence to support physical and mental health benefits that derive from human-nature interactions. A review of the evidence base conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration (2013) found a plethora of research and policy interest in the potential of using natural environments to enhance health and well-being. The RSPB Natural Thinking report (2007) concluded there was compelling evidence for human-nature interactions to play an important role in the treatment of a wide range of mental health issues, including ADHD, anxiety and stress. Many of the existing psychological theories that attempt to understand the beneficial properties of human-nature interaction have focused either on evolutionary-based accounts (i.e., Ulrich et al., 1991) or the cognitive-perceptual properties of natural scenes in comparison to urban settings (i.e. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1995). New research is moving the paradigm from one of thinking about human nature interactions solely in terms of benefits to accepting these as a given and instead focusing on over-coming barriers faced by some groups of the population, in order to address health inequalities at the population level (Currie et al, 2018; Colley et al, 2017). One barrier that is commonly noted in the literature is the perceived lack of available time. There is currently very little research that has addressed the nature of human-nature interaction in a way that adequately accounts for the social, spatial and temporal context. In the 1960s, the new field of time-geography was developed as an attempt to address this issue and has proved to be useful insofar as it provided a way to represent and understand the dynamic nature of everyday life. However, time-geographic ideas have, to date, not had much influence on psychology, and specifically, on the psychology of human-nature interactions. The research proposed here aims to fill this important gap. From a psychological perspective, one needs to understand not only the temporal, social and physical enablers and constraints that impact on time-use, but also the individual cognitive and emotional context within which human-environment interactions occur. Feelings of “time-pressure” for example come when there is a mismatch between what someone wishes to do, and the amount of time available to dedicate to doing such things (Currie et al, 2018). However, under such conditions, a person may be less likely to prioritise spending time in nature, even if it may have a mentally protective effect. This dynamic needs to be better understood, as it will help expand knowledge of the causal relationship(s) between human-nature interactions and associated physical and mental health benefits.

1. To conduct secondary data analyses to establish the extent of contextual variation in the nature and frequency of human-nature interactions.
2. To conduct a series of empirical studies to explore how perceived time-pressure modulates the frequency and content of ‘restorative’ nature-based experiences.
3. To use the findings from the secondary and primary data analyses to develop a novel dynamic model of human-nature interactions that incorporates both temporal and cognitive-emotional factors.

The research will begin by systematically reviewing the existing literature and studies in the topic area. This initial stage will be important in refining the hypotheses underpinning the empirical studies of the project. It is then anticipated that a secondary data analysis be carried out, after a review of available relevant data is undertaken. A starting point could include using the UK time use survey ( The exact methods for the empirical studies will be determined with the student, but are likely to be mixed methods including questionnaires, psychological experiments, diary studies and interviews.

Funding Notes

The studentship is funded under the James Hutton Institute/University Joint PhD programme, in this case with the Anglia Ruskin University, for a 3.5 year study period. Applicants should have a first-class honours degree in a relevant subject or a 2.1 honours degree plus Masters (or equivalent).Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed in Jan/Feb 2019. A more detailed plan of the studentship is available to candidates upon application. Funding is available for European applications, but Worldwide applicants who possess suitable self-funding are also invited to apply.

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