Tag Archives: trees

Why You Need Trees On Your Screensaver

Does your phone wallpaper/screensaver show a picture of nature?

When I give talks about how our love of nature intertwines with our love of technology, I often ask the audience to put up their hands if they have a nature photo on their screensavers or wallpapers. Usually, at least half of them do.

I’m not surprised by that. Environmental psychology research has shown over and over again that just looking at pictures of nature such as photos, paintings, and videos can slow the heartbeat and reduce stress and anxiety. Of course, nothing beats the real thing, but images come a very close second.

Last weekend I wondered how a quick  random Twitter poll would answer a similar question – ‘Does your phone wallpaper/screensaver show a picture of nature?’. 59 people responded, of whom 68% said Yes and 32% said No.(Results) Those numbers roughly match what my live audiences say. I didn’t ask, however, exactly what aspects of nature those pictures portrayed. There may have been some trees, perhaps? As in Flatland, a new live wallpaper from Maxelus which animals and birds stroll across your screen.

Flatland live wallpaper
Flatland live wallpaper (also looks a bit like the savanna – see below)

If you’re feeling stressed, seek out some trees

Coincidentally, some interesting research popped into my inbox today (thanks @danfoxdavies) which adds an extra dimension to the screensaver thing. Scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and the University of Hong Kong have shown that not only do pictures and videos of trees reduce stress, but the density of trees is also important. They call it a ‘dose’, as in a dose of medicine, and ask which is more calming – viewing a single tree or a number of trees?

In a carefully designed experiment, they worked with 160 participants in a four stage exercise.

  1. The participants underwent a series of tests designed to induce psychological stress. The tests included 3 minutes to prepare a public speech, a 5-minute public speech, and a 5-minute subtraction task performed in front of two interviewers and a video camera, and completed without paper and pencil or a calculator. To increase stress levels, participants were told that their performance would be recorded and assessed later, but actually no video recording was made. During the tests, they were asked to report on their stress levels several times.
  2. The participants then viewed specially recorded 6 minute videos of varying kinds of landscapes.
  3. Then they undertook the stress tests again.
  4. Finally, they were given 15 minutes to write about how they had felt during the experiment.

The researchers analysed the resulting texts and identified keywords. For example, keywords used in the final piece of writing included “relaxing, calming, tranquil, at ease, comfortable, peaceful, serene, settled, safe, quite, a reprieve, mesmerizing, soothing, pleasant, unrushed, undisturbed, enjoyable, worry-free”.

They concluded that the percentage of people using keywords indicating stress recovery increases as the density of tree cover increases. At the lowest level of tree density, only 41% of participants reported a calming
effect but as tree cover density reached 36%, more than 90% of participants reported a stress recovery experience.

The team concluded that there is “a positive, linear association between the density of urban street trees and self-reported stress recovery”. In other words, if you’re feeling stressed,  hang out in a place where there are lots of trees, and you’ll probably be able to relax.

(The paper itself is behind an academic firewall, but Laurie Vazquez‘s article at Big Think  summarises it really well.)

The Savanna Hypothesis

One possible explanation for the fact that we feel better around trees is Gordon Orians’ Savanna Hypothesis, which argues that since humans originated from the African savanna where groups of trees like the acacias pictured below provided shelter and resources. Some deep ancient memory reassures us they offer safety.

Acacia trees in the savannah
Acacia trees in the savannah

Forest Bathing

Another reason could be that trees help us relax. Forest bathing or shinrin-yoku, involves walking or resting in a forest, breathing in the healing aromas of the trees and tuning into the abundant life around you.

The practice has been widely-researched in Japan, where a recent journal paper described an experiment with 19 middle-aged men suffering from high-blood pressure who were asked to take 80 minute forest walks on two weekends. Researchers said the activity “significantly reduced pulse rate, and significantly increased the score for vigor and decreased the scores for depression, fatigue, anxiety and confusion”.

Needless to say, forest bathing cannot really be undertaken in the sensory-deprived digital environment, at least not yet, but perhaps an image of forests might produce a sympathetic physiological nearby nature response? And, perhaps one day soon, we may even be able to produce virtual aromas to match.

FOREST
Forest Bathing

 

Nearby nature on your screen

Nearby nature involves small suggestions of the natural world which, although seemingly insignificant and often out of physical reach, can play a powerful role in human well-being. People with access to nearby natural settings have been found to be healthier than those without, and often experience increased levels of satisfaction with their home, job, and life in general.

So, to wrap up, if you want some nature on your screensaver, consider trees.

A curious form of travel: The Tree Climber’s Guide

“Tree climbing is a curious form of travel. Ascending, we cross the divide between two worlds, and the people passing beneath us become as separate as fish in an aquarium. Discovering a trunk with a clear path to the crown is enticing as finding a ladder to the moon; this is the essence of climbing, a method of passing between two spheres – the humdrum everyday and the elevated.” So wrote Jack Cooke in The Guardian recently.

First there was wild swimming and now, it seems, there is wild tree climbing. Not that the tree itself is necessarily wild, especially in cities. To see the world through Cooke’s eyes involves looking beyond the streets and buildings, and looking up as often as possible ‘Stepping off a bus or out from the underground, my first thought is to scan the street for its trees, learning to recognise crowns from afar and straying to catalogue new climbs.’

His list of the five best trees to climb in London includes parks – Clissold, Battersea and Lucas Gardens; Highbury Island, a large circle of green surrounded by roads; and the crumbling Paddington Old Cemetery.  Find out more in his new book  The Tree Climber’s Guide.

Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders

Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson, 2016

It all started with Nathanael Johnson’s decision to teach his daughter the name of every tree they passed on their walk to daycare in San Francisco. This project turned into a quest to discover the secrets of the neighbourhood’s flora and fauna, and yielded more than names and trivia: Johnson developed a relationship with his nonhuman neighbors.

Johnson argues that learning to see the world afresh, like a child, shifts the way we think about nature: Instead of something distant and abstract, nature becomes real all at once comical, annoying, and beautiful. This shift can add tremendous value to our lives, and it might just be the first step in saving the world.

No matter where we live city, country, oceanside, or mountains there are wonders that we walk past every day. “Unseen City” widens the pinhole of our perspective by allowing us to view the world from the high-altitude eyes of a turkey vulture and the distinctly low-altitude eyes of a snail. The narrative allows us to eavesdrop on the comically frenetic life of a squirrel and peer deep into the past with a ginkgo biloba tree. Each of these organisms has something unique to tell us about our neighborhoods and, chapter by chapter, “Unseen City” takes us on a journey that is part nature lesson and part love letter to the world’s urban jungles. With the right perspective, a walk to the subway can be every bit as entrancing as a walk through a national park.” (Amazon)

Johnson writes about the thinking behind Unseen City at Grist.  He says

But by coming to know nature in the neighborhood, where it’s too close to be romanticized, we can work out a realistic relationship. Instead of longing for a romantic Eden that never existed, we could open our eyes to the truth: We’re already living in Eden, we just have to learn to see it.

The video accompanying the book unpacks this further. Watch: