How does biodiversity affect our mental health? Smartphones helped with research

Jak bioróżnorodność wpływa na nasze zdrowie psychiczne? Smartfony pomogły w badaniach

In the face of climate change, the need to nurture green spaces in urbanized, gated areas is increasingly emphasized. How important is contact with nature to our health and well-being? In a recent study, using a smartphone app, researchers examined how biodiversity affects residents’ mental health. The study provides new perspectives on the importance of integrating natural elements into urban spaces.

What affects our physical and mental health?

The impact of climatic and environmental conditions on human physical and mental health is a topic that is increasingly featured in scientific and media debates. Available research shows the complexity of this issue, especially in the context of urbanization and the effects of climate change.

Certainly, our physical health is influenced by sunlight, which plays a key role in the synthesis of vitamin D, which has important implications for the prevention of cancer, autoimmune diseases and the prevention of rickets in children [1]. In turn, urban vegetation can contribute to lower levels of pollutants such as particulates and nitrogen oxides, which are emitted by vehicles and industry. Studies have shown that trees in cities can significantly reduce pollution levels, resulting in a lower risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases [2].

The impact of nature on mental health is a topic that requires a deeper understanding. Research on the impact of the natural environment on psychological well-being is often limited to general determinants, leaving out specific elements like trees, fowl or water. For example, biodiversity and direct contact with nature can be crucial to our psychological well-being, though unfortunately many studies are based on artificial scenarios [3].

Instead, it has been proven that access to green spaces in cities, which are part of a biodiverse ecosystem, can improve both mental and physical health. One example is increased physical activity among residents with access to parks and other green spaces [4].

Biodiversity and smartphone research

The aim of the study was to analyze the impact of biodiversity on human psychological well-being. The analysis focused on understanding whether mental health depends not only on the overall amount of green space, but also on the variety of individual natural elements in a given space. The study focused on three main research questions:

  1. Are occasional interactions with certain elements of nature associated with better mental health, and are these associations long-lasting?
  2. Is there a correlation between increased natural features and better well-being, suggesting that greater biodiversity in an area has more beneficial effects on the mental health of residents?
  3. How important is the diversity of components of the natural environment to the relationship between contact with nature and psychological well-being?

The study used the Urban Mind mobile app, which is a tool for monitoring the impact of the environment on mental health. The application made it possible to perform multiple measurements in real time, eliminating an error called “recal bias.” A total of 7829 users downloaded the app, of which 1998 users carried out at least 25 percent. scheduled ecological assessments, thus meeting the minimum criteria for participation.

During the study, participants’ demographics such as age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sleep quality and mental health information were also collected. Over the course of 14 days, participants made 42 momentary ecological assessments, three per day, excluding hours spent sleeping. As part of these evaluations, participants were required to submit photos and short audio clips that documented their surroundings.

The analysis included assessments of well-being, the environment and biodiversity. All collected data were analyzed in detail to understand the relationship between exposure to natural agents and participants’ mental health.

What did the research show?

The study’s authors note that their work has some limitations. One is that the research group consists solely of smartphone users, with an average age of 35.5 years, making the sample demographically unrepresentative of the entire population. In addition, there is speculation that those voluntarily using the Urban Mind app may be more aware of or interested in the impact of nature on mental health, which may have influenced the bias in their responses, especially since the goals of the study were clearly communicated from the beginning.

Nevertheless, this study is a pioneering effort to assess the impact of daily interactions with various elements of biodiversity on mental health, conducted in the context of real-world conditions and real-time, taking into account the individual characteristics of the participants.

The final results of the study provided answers to the three key questions posed by the hypothesis. First, the positive impact of natural environmental elements on human well-being has been identified. For example, the excitement of meeting birds and observing vegetation and trees may be more lasting, unlike the sensations of watching water or listening to its noise. Second, increasing biodiversity has been found to have a lasting and positive impact on mental health. Third, it was shown that each additional natural element in the participant’s environment, increased their level of satisfaction.

In the article, I used, among other things. From the works:

[1] Holick, MF. “Vitamin D Deficiency.” The New England journal of medicine, 2007
[2] Nowak, DJ, Crane, DE, Stevens, JC. “Air pollution removal by urban trees and shrubs in the United States.” Urban forestry & urban greening, 2006
[3] White, MP, et al. “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing.” Scientific reports, 2019
[4] Maas, J., et al. “Green space, urbanity, and health: how strong is the relation?” Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 2006

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