Researchers at the UCSB National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) have identified a number of ways nature affects humans in intangible ways, such as through cultural contributions and effects on human mental health.
While nature provides humans with obvious essentials like food and water, NCEAS researchers are highlighting the many nonmaterial benefits humans receive from Mother Nature, in a study entitled “Humans and Nature: How Knowing and Experiencing Nature Affect Well-Being.” Published by the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, the study combines multidisciplinary research to document the effects that natural ecosystems have on human physiology and psychology, covering areas such as physical health, mental health, spirituality, sense of place and identity.
With a research team led by Roly Russell of the Sandhill Institute for Sustainability and Complexity in British Columbia, the study divides each of the 10 effects into four channels of human interaction with nature: knowing, perceiving, interacting and living with nature.
Frank Davis, director of NCEAS, said some of nature’s effects are more difficult to study than others, such as categories like “sense of place.”
“Some are better understood than others,” Davis said. “For example, just knowing something exists — the value of that is less understood. There’s better evidence for things like perceiving nature’s effect on physical health and mental health.”
According to Davis, the study focuses on reorganizing pre-existing data rather than submitting original research, collecting previous research from multiple fields to give a well-rounded picture of nature’s effect on well-being.
“It was not new work in this case,” Davis said. “Our biggest accomplishment was this ability to pull these different disciplinary threads together into a framework for approaching the way we think about these non-material benefits for nature.”
According to Environmental Studies Department Chair Josh Schimel, the NCEAS team found it more difficult to study intangible factors of human life, such as culture and spirituality. He said the academic fields of psychology and sociology present very different obstacles, in terms of collecting research findings, than other fields.
“It is a very different way of assessing information,” Schimel said. “That doesn’t mean it’s any less rigorous or any less quantitative than the natural sciences. It has different challenges.”
NCEAS has currently shifted its focus toward a new project, entitled “Science for Nature and People,” which emphasizes the importance of conservation of both nature and the livelihood of humanity. This research will continue to document the importance of nature on various aspects of human life, explaining in greater detail how humanity must learn to coexist with nature, Davis said.
“This is a very deliberate attempt … to think about conservation of nature, both in terms of the benefits to wild species, but also the benefits to people,” Davis said. “It’s almost artificial to try to separate people from nature. We are in and of nature.”
A version of this article appeared on page 3 of October 29th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.