A Sense of Place: Exploring Nature & Wellbeing through the Non-Visual Senses

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities

Abstract

We are regularly told that spending time in nature is good for us. The extent of the link between nature and wellbeing is apparently so strong that the Wildlife Trusts are currently campaigning for 'a Nature and Wellbeing Act for England'. Capaldi et al. argue (2015) that 'evidence suggests that connecting with nature is one path to flourishing in life' and that spending time in nature is therefore a 'potential wellbeing intervention'. Other studies have similarly explored themes such as 'the health benefits of contact with nature in a park context' or the value of 'green exercise' as a wellbeing tool. Many of these studies provide evidence to support a general idea that nature is 'good for us'. Yet, their construction of 'nature' is often broad and definitions of wellbeing typically loose. What exactly is it about 'nature' that improves our 'wellbeing'? What do these two terms actually mean to people?

Many of the links between wellbeing and nature relate to walking and activity, but many others are based on an idea that merely 'being in nature' can be good for body and soul. This perceived connection between 'being in nature' and wellbeing has a long social and cultural history, yet is rarely critically examined. In wellbeing literature, the value of nature is often understood in terms of 'green spaces' or attractive landscapes. In hospitals, nature is often introduced through pictures of landscapes or artificial plants. Such frameworks implicitly assume that the value of nature for wellbeing is inextricably linked to the ability to see it, and they often treat 'nature' as homogeneous. What if we remove the visual, and focus on the smells, tastes or sounds of nature? What if we immerse people in unfamiliar or 'wild' natural sensescapes? Does everybody associate the same sensory aspects of nature with wellbeing, or are the relationships more diverse and complex? We will use emerging immersive 360-degree sound and smell technologies to explore some of these questions.

Planned Impact

This project is a starting point for further development and impact. Due to the limited time frame of this project, we are producing a prototype experience that seeks to identify the main opportunities for impact. A main output for this stage of the project will be a clear 'pathway to impact' plan - including developing appropriate methodologies - for at least one of the two routes below, ready for the next stage.

We have identified two main strands for this impact activity in phase 2 of the project, in terms of contexts that would benefit from multi-sensory immersive simulation (instead of 'real' nature). We will explore which of these strands has the most potential for impact, through (a) feedback on the prototype experience; and (b) inviting relevant potential partners to the September workshop. The prototype experience will have at least 20 public spaces, but we will also keep five for invited partners who are interested in working with us further to develop one of the following impact strands:
1) HEALTHCARE AND WELLBEING. The first strand relates to the potential value of site-specific immersive installations for healthcare and wellbeing purposes. We will identify groups that would benefit from technology that 'brings nature' to sites with limited access to such spaces. We have existing relationships with urban hospitals (including Southmead Hospital and Bristol Royal Infirmary), who provide one potential audience for this kind of installation, if the technology can be made sufficiently low-maintenance for long-term use. We will invite these contacts to our prototype experience, and to our September workshop. We will also explore the potential value that technologies might have in these places for people who have specific sensory needs, in terms of enabling them to control and 'pick their own' nature/wellbeing sensescapes. As our immersive installations will include the capacity to manage levels / proportions of different sensory experiences, we see potential value for those with heightened sensory awareness or sensory impairment. We will explore this potential impact by seeking a diverse public audience, including those with specific sensory needs, at our prototype experience. Ronald Ligtenberg will also explore the potential for our prototype experiences to feed into Skyway Program's work with deaf communities, as part of this potential impact pathway. There are also potentially more commercial applications connected to health, in wellbeing and spa industries.
2) CULTURE. We envisage great and varied potential value for such technologies in multi-sensory 'scene setting' in performance, culture and heritage spheres. For these spheres, the main benefit will relate to engaging audiences both for commercial and non-commercial purposes. Stephanie Singer and Ronald Ligtenberg, Consultant and Co-I on this stage of the project respectively, already work in these environments and will explore this potential impact strand as we test the prototypes. They will consider the potential values of our prototype sensory experiences within the performance spheres, including the arts, theatre and dining. Clare Hickman also has experience of working with the heritage sector to recreate the environment of historic gardens, and will explore the potential for multi-sensory versions of this work as we test our prototype experience. We have further contacts in this area, including academics working on the cultural representation of nature and wellbeing (such as Samantha Walton, Bath Spa University, 'Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing'), who will also be invited to our prototype experience and September workshop.

More detail on how we expect to achieve impact in these areas can be found in the 'pathways to impact' attachment.

Publications

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Title Soundscapes 
Description Natural soundscapes (recorded by CI Jonathan Prior) and an artist's more abstract composition involving natural sounds and ASMR (by project consultant Stephanie Singer). 
Type Of Art Composition/Score 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact These soundscapes are developmental and were used primarily in the 'immersive experience' work-in-progress event. They are designed to elicit responses, rather than as finished products, but they have also been made freely available online on SoundCloud for people who wish to engage with them. 
URL https://soundcloud.com/user-610124585/sets/a-sense-of-place
 
Description After gathering data from members of the public about their favourite natural environments, our team used smell and sound technologies to create - and explore reactions to - immersive, multi-sensory experiences of the natural world.

We found that the non-visual senses are incredibly important to how people experience the world around them. Taking away the often-dominant sense (sight) and focusing on the smells, sounds, tastes and textures of 'nature' helped to stimulate imagination and emotion.

However, there is no single sensory environment that enhances people's sense of 'wellbeing'; experiences of sounds, smells and textures are inseparable from individual memories and life experiences.

In this project we have found that sensory technologies, delivered with care, can provide exciting opportunities for people to adapt environments to reflect these personal aspects of sensory "wellbeing".
Exploitation Route As this was a development grant, we look forward to the next steps, when we will consider the value of such technologies for people with limited access to 'nature', ranging from healthcare and care environments to polluted inner city areas.
Sectors Healthcare

 
Description Shaped healthcare arts practice in Bristol: inspired a series of events on 'sound' in late 2018, including the use of podcasts in hospital.
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
 
Description Health and care collaborations 
Organisation North Bristol NHS Trust
Department Department of Orthopaedic Surgery
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Hospitals 
PI Contribution Our team contributed intellectual input and resources / technologies provided by the development grant.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners engaged in our research processes in a range of ways, giving their time to comment on work-in-progress and providing feedback on our immersive experience (as part of the 'development grant' goals). One of these relationships was pre-existing, from a CI's previous AHRC grant, but the others were all new.
Impact This is a development grant, so there are not yet 'outputs' and the collaborations are paused while we seek future funding, but they are not 'ceased' as such. The outcome of these collaborations was a plan for a much bigger funding application, with a clear sense of some of the areas that are worth investigating further (memory, different sensory abilities, play and co-production) and which of our experiment activities were less productive (simulated 'authenticity'). Thanks to our collaborators, we have a clearer sense of how technological interventions in relation to nature, senses and wellbeing might function - and be of use - in a range of environments - from polluted inner-city areas to healthcare and care spaces. We anticipate a funding application as an 'output', and are currently identifying appropriate opportunities particularly in UKRI and Wellcome.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Health and care collaborations 
Organisation Southmead Hospital
Department Bristol Urological Institute
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Our team contributed intellectual input and resources / technologies provided by the development grant.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners engaged in our research processes in a range of ways, giving their time to comment on work-in-progress and providing feedback on our immersive experience (as part of the 'development grant' goals). One of these relationships was pre-existing, from a CI's previous AHRC grant, but the others were all new.
Impact This is a development grant, so there are not yet 'outputs' and the collaborations are paused while we seek future funding, but they are not 'ceased' as such. The outcome of these collaborations was a plan for a much bigger funding application, with a clear sense of some of the areas that are worth investigating further (memory, different sensory abilities, play and co-production) and which of our experiment activities were less productive (simulated 'authenticity'). Thanks to our collaborators, we have a clearer sense of how technological interventions in relation to nature, senses and wellbeing might function - and be of use - in a range of environments - from polluted inner-city areas to healthcare and care spaces. We anticipate a funding application as an 'output', and are currently identifying appropriate opportunities particularly in UKRI and Wellcome.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Immersive experience - showcase and research 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We ran an 'immersive experience' work-in-progress event in August 2018, which offered both an experience in itself (for a range of people who might benefit from it) and operated as part of our project research in order to gather feedback and responses. We included participants from a wide range of backgrounds - ranging from collaborators to members of the general public, artists, and patients. We made a video at the workshop, for the purposes of wider dissemination, as this 'immersive experience' was designed to be about care and therefore was a small group experience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmACpK-kt78
 
Description Public-facing blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Public-facing blog, with regular research posts and updates from the project team, and with access to the soundscapes that we recorded for the project. It is difficult to know who the blog readers are (in relation to the above questions about audiences), but the statistics show that the reach has been international. The blog has led a number of people to reach out to the project team interested in collaborating, from academics to arts and health practitioners.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
URL https://naturesenseswellbeing.wordpress.com/