A multi-disciplinary team has been examining the role that the non-visual senses play in people’s ‘wellbeing’. Evidence suggests that connecting with nature is one path to flourishing in life and that spending time in nature is a ‘potential wellbeing intervention’.

The team brings together researchers from the University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Chester with sensory artists and technologists to explore the potential value of immersive experiences that focus on the sounds, smells and textures of nature.

As part of a 2017 Immersive Experiences Partnership Call funded by the AHRC and EPSRC, the project highlights how often spending time in nature is recommended as 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’.

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 are typically loose.

The team, led by Dr Victoria Bates, from Bristol’s Department of History set out to examine what exactly is it about ‘nature’ that improves our ‘wellbeing’ and what do these two terms actually mean to people?

They ask: “the value of ‘green spaces’ or ‘blue spaces’ for wellbeing is implicitly linked to the ability to see them, but 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?”

After gathering data from members of the public about their favourite natural environments, the team used smell and sound technologies to create – and explore reactions to – immersive, multi-sensory experiences of the natural world.

They 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.

Dr Bates added: “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”.

“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.”

This project was supported by the AHRC and EPSRC ‘Immersive Experiences’ research and development grant. For more information, including blogs by the project team, please see: https://naturesenseswellbeing.wordpress.com/

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