“Of swallows, hares and horrors” – Simon Barnes on nature in the Age of Terror

Coming across this post on my other blog last year I was struck by the link with the nature connection material I have posted about (well, posted other people’s work on) here. In a way this piece – written in the direct aftermath of last year’s terror attacks in the UK – is as timely now as it was then, and holds up well to the passage of the months.

Séamus Sweeney

Original here:

Wild June moves into Day 5 and I’m spoiled for choice again. Shall I write about the swallows above the meadow? Or the hare in the garden? We saw each other at the same time and we both froze, holding a 15 yard stand-off for a full minute. Or perhaps I’ll turn to the butterflies that –

Tell me: is it wicked to enjoy such things in a time of devastation, after the horrors of Manchester have been followed by the horrors of London Bridge? Of if not wicked, is it not infinitely trivial, lacking in all seriousness, to bother with nature at times of random urban murder?

I did a piece for The World at One the other day, on the drastic decline of lesser sported woodpeckers. They put it on right at the end, cheerily describing it as “light relief”. I was a little surprised that…

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“Sober Minds” Documentary Trailer

Sober Minds [2017] Short Documentary Trailer from Zimmerhands Films on Vimeo.

Sober Minds is an uplifting autobiographical documentary that showcases the beauty of urban wildlife through breathtaking photography and powerful anecdotes.


Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival US (World Premiere)
Fingal Film & Arts Festival IRE (Irish Premiere)
DocUtah International Documentary Film Festival US.

Website: CharloJohnson.com/SoberMinds
Facebook: facebook.com/SoberMindsFilm

This trailer looks really interesting – even the trailer powerfully depicts the power of nature connection and suggests that nature can be a source of connection that more mainstream education (for instance) misses out on

How Forest Bathing Keeps Us Well – from Finding Nature Blog

How Forest Bathing Keeps Us Well — Finding Nature


There’s been a flurry of attention on forest bathing recently. Originating in Japan, it is the practice of taking a trip into the forest for well-being benefits. Last year we completed a meta-analysis of 11 Japanese research studies into forest bathing, it was published open access in Evolutionary Psychological Science. The paper considered the results in the context of a ‘3 Circles’ model of emotional regulation that helps reveal why immersing oneself in the woods is good for health.


A colleague at Derby, Prof Paul Gilbert OBE, has shown that that both our evolution, and research evidence, can be represented by three dimensions of our emotion regulation system. A simple way to do this is to represent these systems with 3 circles – handily represented here (in original blog post – Ed.) by a falcon, ash tree and wild boar warning! We can experience threat (the boar), drive (the falcon) and contentment (the tree). So, in more detail:

  • Drive – positive feelings required to seek out resources, and nowadays achieve success at work or in leisure. It’s about a wanting (that can bring joy and pleasure) as we pursue things (as a falcon does).
  • Contentment has an affiliative focus bringing different positive feelings, for example safety, soothing, affection, kindness and a positive calm with the way things are (represented by the ash tree).
  • Anxiety – feelings and alerts generated by the threat and self-protection system. Located in the fast-acting amygdala this system can be both activating and inhibiting (represented by the wild boar warning).

Each dimension brings different feelings (such as anxiety, joy, and calm), motivations (avoid, pursue and rest) – releasing various hormones in the body. For wellbeing we need a balance between the three dimensions – happiness and satisfaction comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. For example, when our threat response is overactive, an unbalance caused by being constantly driven for example, our positive emotions are reduced and we can become anxious or depressed.

Returning to the forest bathing research, we focussed on those studies that measured heart-rate variability – an indicator of activity in the branches of the nervous system that controls the heart. Although these studies found differences in the responses to urban and forest environments they didn’t consider them in the context of emotional regulation – how nature links to emotion, physiology and well-being. Nor did they have compelling explanations for some variety in the results.

The results of the analysis supported the story told by the 3 Circles model. Finding that being in the woods was calming – activating the parasympathetic nervous system associated with contentment. Whereas the urban control environment they used stimulated the sympathetic nervous system associated with drive and threat.

As ever the story is a little more complex. Some people weren’t soothed by the woodland, others were stimulated by it. Again, the 3 circles can help explain this. Some people could experience threat in the woodland, feeling anxious about what lies in the undergrowth – is that a boar rustling? This would cause a spike in sympathetic nervous system activity. Those more in tune with nature could feel joy (rather than calm) at being asked to spend time in the woods – at any time an exciting falcon may fly past! Such joy would also raise activity in the sympathetic nervous system.

Some prior posts here on forest bathing:

A walk in the woods – the rise of “forest bathing”

Deer ears – more on forest bathing

More thoughts on forest bathing


Beyond Knowing Nature – 5 Pathways to Nature Connection

Once again I am reblogging an interesting post by psychologist Miles Richardson on connection with nature and well being.

Particularly interesting is the research finding that factual knowledge does not necessarily correlate with emotional connection with nature. As Richardson writes, “the brain feels before it thinks”, and by focusing too much on how well species can be identified, we can miss the potential of emotional, experiential connection.

Finding Nature

Owing to the benefits to both human and nature’s well-being, and wide spread disconnection, a connection with nature is something many people and organisations are keen to increase. So there is a need to know how best to do this. We’ve already developed specific interventions, such as 3 good things in nature, but our wider framework of effective routes to nature connection has just been published in Plos One. I’m excited about this work is it provides guidance for those seeking to re-connect people with nature, indeed it has been central to much of our recent nature connections work, for example, guiding the type of activities promoted as part of The Wildlife Trusts highly successful 30 Days Wild campaign.

General nature contact and knowledge based activities are often used in an attempt to engage people with nature. However the specific routes to nature connectedness have not been examined…

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#OceanOptimism, powerlessness, hope, and change.

The current BBC Wildlife Magazine has a fascinating article by Elin Kelsey, of the Ocean Optimism Project, on how media-fuelled environmental despair and nihilism ends up demoralising people to the degree that positive action seems impossible. She cites much research on the “finite pool of worry” and the paralysing effect of despair, and the power optimism to reverse this trend. The article isn’t available online, but in the post below from my other blog I highlight relevant passages from a Kelsey piece in Smithsonian Magazine on similar themes.

This article is obviously focused on ecology, but is all too true of our healthcare systems. For similar reasons to those Kelsey ascribes to environmentalists who are wary of being overly focused on good news, frontline workers in the health service naturally tend to focus on what is wrong, what is proving impossible, what needs to change. This is necessary, but can become an overwhelming counsel of nihilism, fostering cynicism and very often helping to entrench negative practices.

This is very relevant to the various themes on valuesmorale, “blame culture”, and possibility of positive change within not only the HSE but any healthcare organisation.

Séamus Sweeney

The current issue of BBC Wildlife Magazinehas a fascinating cover story by Elin Kelseyon hope and optimism versus despair in how we think about they environment. Essentially, much media discourse on the environment tends to be gloomy, doom, and generally despairing. Kelsey cites a wide range of research on how this negativity effects how we think about the environment and our beliefs about what can be done – and therefore what is done – to improve things. The full article is not available online. This article from Smithsonian Magazine is briefer, but captures her idea:

Things are far more resilient than I ever imagined. Me, green sea turtles, coral reefs blown to bits by atomic bombs. In a twist of fate that even surprised scientists, Bikini Atoll, site of one of the world’s biggest nuclear explosions, is now a scuba diver’s paradise. Bikini Atoll located in the Pacific’s…

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” Further studies are needed in which patients are instructed to watch the fish.”

I previously noted a brief reference in a book on high rise life to the role of aquaria in fighting loneliness. There is a fair amount written about the calming effects of contemplating aquaria. This paper attempts to study the phenomenon empirically in a (very) particular patient group. It is also an example of an abstract selling a result in the way the paper doesn’t support… “trend towards significance” indeed!

Anthrozoös Vol. 16 , Iss. 3,2003


This study investigates the effect of an aquarium on pre-treatment anxiety, fear. frustration, and depression in electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) patients. Forty-two patients consecutively referred for ECT were rotated between rooms with and without aquariums. Self report measures of depression, anxiety, fear, and frustration were obtained, along with heart rate and blood pressure measurements. Preliminary mixed-model, repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) revealed no significant differences between the aquarium and control conditions on any of the dependent measures. A trend toward significance was found for self reported anxiety (p=0.08) and further data were collected. Subsequent mixed model, repeated measures ANOVA confirmed the trend toward differences (p=0.08) in anxiety between the aquarium and control conditions. Factoring out demographic factors, the average patient experienced 12% less anxiety in the presence of an aquarium.

The authors describe how ECT is an effective, evidence-based psychiatric treatment, but that pre-treatment anxiety is an issue. Prior interventions have not been found significantly effective:

Educational interventions have been primarily developed to address this fear and anxiety; however, conflicting results have been reported regarding their effectiveness. One study focused on the effect of emotional support, provided by a psychiatric nurse in an educational context, on the anxiety levels of 32 ECT patients (Cohen 1970). The results revealed no significant difference in anxiety levels between patients receiving the intervention and those who did not. Another study involving 37 veteran psychiatric patients reported that while knowledge and behavioral intent showed positive changes following an educational ECT video, there was no reduction in fear (Battersby, Ben-Tovim and Eden 1993). Contrary results were reported using a continuous quality improvement model in which an educational video and written information were found to reduce anxiety. These findings are based on follow-up telephone interviews from15 patients (Harrison and Kaarsemaker 2000).

The authors describe animal-assisted therapy:

One environmental intervention, animal-assisted therapy (AAT), has been found to calm patients in some circum-; the benefits of interacting with companion animals are receiving increased attention in the healthcare industry. Studies have documented an association between pet ownership and reduced cardiovascular risk factors,improved one-year survival rates following myocardial infarction, reduction in minor health problems, and lower physician utilization (Friedmann et al.1980; Siegel 1990; Serpell 1991; Anderson, Reid and Jennings 1992). More recently, randomized controlled studies have shown a positive effect of pet ownership, or the presence of pets, on physiological indicators of reactivestress (Allen et al. 1991; Allen 2000; Allen, Shykoff and Izzo 2001; Allen,Blascovich and Mendes 2002). Interacting with companion animals has also been associated with reduced anxiety levels for non-psychiatric as well as inpatient psychiatric populations (Wilson 1991; Barker and Dawson1998). A significant reduction in anxiety was reported in a study involving 241 hospitalized psychiatric patients with a broad range of diagnoses fol-lowing 30 minutes of animal-assisted therapy (Barker and Dawson 1998).A more recent study found a significant reduction in fear following a 15-minute interaction with a therapy dog and its handler for 35 psychiatric patients waiting for electroconvulsive therapy (Barker, Pandurangi and Best 2003). No significant differences were found for anxiety or depression.

The authors describe the limitations of this study. One strikes me as fairly fundmental – patients were not asked to look at, or engage with the aquarium…. and in fact couldn’t, by and large, actually see it :

Similar to the results reported by Katcher, Segal and Beck (1984),blood pressure and heart rate readings were not significantly different for the patients in the aquarium and control conditions: the presence of an aquarium was not associated with reduced physiological measures of anxiety in patients waiting for ECT. However, unlike the earlier Katcher, Segaland Beck study, patients in this study were not asked to look at, or in anyway attend to, the aquarium, nor was it suggested to them that the aquarium would have a calming effect. Instead, the purpose of this study was to assess the impact of the mere presence of a fish aquarium. Further studies are needed in which patients are instructed to watch the fish.

The lack of significant findings in the present study may also be in part due to the background role of the aquarium. As patients were not seated in front of the aquarium or asked to look at it, they were not intentionally exposed to the potentially calming effect of watching the fish, unless they deliberately chose to do so. Most patients tended to lie down while in the holding rooms. In order to view the fish in this position, they would have to deliberately lie on one side. It may be necessary for patients to focus on the aquarium to derive benefit; a task that may be difficult for severely depressed patients. Also, the aquarium may not represent a powerful enough stimulus to distract patients from thoughts of their upcoming ECT treatment.

As neither study resulted in a significant reduction in anxiety, it maybe that the anxiety related to the ECT procedure is not amenable to the calming effects of animal-assisted activities. Also, the global nature of the visual analog scales used in both studies may not be sensitive to anxiety changes resulting from animal-assisted activities.

It does strike me that, as ECT is now reserved for specific indications and, by definition, those most severely ill, the anxiety and distress associated is likely to be at the more severe end of the spectrum – and less likely to respond to the passive presence of an aquarium.