Matt Payne Photography Blog: The Healing Power Of Landscape And Nature Photography - June 14, 2020

Most people enjoy spending time in nature and looking at landscape and nature photography, but for many of us, we can't quite put our finger on why. Fortunately, there is some incredible research that has been conducted that showcases the many benefits of being in nature and looking at images of nature. I was first turned on to these ideas through listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain. In a 2018 episode, the host interviews a scientist, Ming Kuo, and they discuss her research on the numerous positive impacts of nature:

  • Better social functioning
  • Better physical health
  • Better psychological functioning
  • Reduced crime in neighborhoods with more access to nature
  • Improved immune systems in people that spend time in nature
Reflecting on Red Mountain Blues
Mountains and clouds reflect in a high mountain lake in Colorado.

Interestingly, some of these effects are found even if people are simply looking at photographs of nature.

Some of the first evidence of these impacts was found through an experiment in the city of Chicago. Kuo and her team wanted to study the impact that trees and nature had on the residents of a public housing project known as Robert Taylor Homes. At this housing project, some areas had lots of trees and green areas and some of them had none, creating a nice natural experiment to study.

The researchers conducted interviews of residents living in the various housing units. The questions devised by the team were designed to evaluate aspects of the resident's daily functioning and revealed stark differences between people in buildings lacking any trees and those who had trees around their buildings. The findings were very compelling, "people in buildings with trees knew and socialized more with neighbors from their buildings, had a stronger sense of community, and felt safer than people in buildings without trees. They also felt better adjusted to where they were living compared to residents in barren buildings."

Water
A photograph of a waterfall found in Iceland that I have always personally found to be soothing.

Also discussed on the podcast that I personally found interesting was the power of nature to rejuvinate mental fatique, which has been studied extensively and is known as the Attention Restoration Theory (ART). Spending more time in nature seems to enhance our ability to concentrate and solve problems.

Another interesting effect that Kuo has discovered through her research is that cities that have more nature see a significant reduction in crime.

Possibly the most impactful part of the podcast for me as a nature and landscape photographer was the research that was conducted relating to the positive physical and mental health impacts of spending time in nature and viewing imagery of nature. Being in nature and looking at images of nature can have some real-world impacts, including:

  • A reduction in your heart-rate
  • Increases in the amount of "natural killer cells" that are beneficial to the immune system
  • Improved mood and decreased anxiety

In fact, in one cross-sectional study of neighborhood pharmacies in London which was discussed on the podcast, pharmacies that were located in neighborhoods with more trees and greenery had substantially fewer prescriptions for mood stabilization medications.

Marsh Marigolds
Wildflowers, a high mountain lake, and a setting sun make for a quite soothing and healing scene to view.

Perhaps my favorite takeaway from Kuo's research as it relates to spending time in nature is the positive effect it can have on our immune system. Her research shows that "time spent in nature has substantial beneficial effects on the immune system, raising positive indicators, and lowering negative ones. Two 2-hour forest walks on consecutive days increased the number and activity of anti-cancer NK cells by 50 and 56%, respectively, and activity remained significantly boosted even a month after returning to urban life — 23% higher than before the walks (). Moreover, extended time in a forest decreased inflammatory cytokines implicated in chronic disease by roughly one-half (). Urban walks have no such effect."

Additionally, "images of nature reduce sympathetic nervous activity and increase parasympathetic activity (e.g., ; ), restore attention (e.g., ), and promote healing from surgery ()."

These impacts have even been demonsrated to be controlled for socio-economic status, and typically people living in lower socio-economic status have less access to nature and green space. This fact is just further reason for me to not only pander my artwork to the wealthy. I try to offer prints and sizes for people with all economic means and have even worked with people in the past that have financial difficulties. I believe that all humans should have access to natural beauty and all of the benefits it can offer.

Big Blue Wilderness (2017)
A view of one of nature's greatest scenes - fall foliage, trees, valleys, and high mountain peaks.

With all this being said, I am thankful that my craft can have these positive health benefits, and, most importantly, I believe this research provides some compelling reasons why people should consider purchasing nature and landscape photography for their homes and offices. The science clearly shows that it can be more than just a pretty picture hanging on the wall. Even more importantly, this research demonsrates the importance of spending time in nature and how critical it is to provide access to nature for people living in cities. This research should compel city councils, planners, mayors, and planning commisions to ensure that all people have access to greenspace, trees, and nature.

If you would like to listen to the podcast, check it out below.

Posted in Articles and tagged Psychology.