Mental Health and Well-Being

The Student Greenhouse's Biodome could enhance the physical health, mental health and personal well-being of students and members of the public. Plants and greenery contribute to job satisfaction and community quality of life. Having a view of nature can affect the course of hospital stays and even the condition of prison inmates. The studies are numerous and range from national inquiries to many investigations conducted here in Michigan.

The Biodome could be a healthful and prestigious enhancement to Michigan State University or any University or community. Academic performance would be enhanced by providing a high quality year round garden to students fatigued or stressed by intense study. Extensive scientific research has documented the resorative health benefits gained by spending time in nature. (Kaplan & Talbot 1983, Hartig et al. 1991, Talbot & Kaplan 1991, Browne 1992, Ulrich & Parsons 1992, Tennessen and Cimprich 1995, Taylor et al. 1998).

The effects of nature on mental health and well-being have been demonstrated by reproducible empirical evidence definitely confirming a causal link. (Wilson 1972, Ulrich 1979, 1981, West 1985, Kaplan et al. 1988, Cimprich 1989, Kaplan & Kaplan 1989, Honeymen 1990, Hartig et al. 1991, Ulrich et al 1991, Kaplan 1993, Tennessen and Cimprich 1995) Experimental investigations of restorative environments containing green plants, trees, flowers and waterscapes show two main effects:

Stress reduction or decrease in the after effects of stress

Recovery from mental fatigue, specifically the capacity of directed attention required to focus on tasks in the face of distractions or extended mental effort

These are the studying-fatigue effects which impact students here on campus.

Cimprich (1989) has shown that after a demanding examination, college students exhibited a decline in directed attention capacity. In her own words, "Thus, the development of attentional fatigue is salient in the college experience and could undermine a student's ability to succeed at a university." (Tennessen and Cimprich 1995). The accumulated data show that access to nearby nature is significant for students' mental functioning as a buffer against fatigue and stress in learning situations.

In a study of university residence hall occupants, their directed attention capabilities were evaluated and compared between groups who had different amounts of nature visible from their windows. (Tennessen and Cimprich 1995) Across the view categories, from all built to all natural, there was a trend of improved rating of the various measures with increased natural elements in view. Students with all natural views scored significantly higher on several of the tests. In addition to performing significantly better, students with the most natural views rated their own attentional functioning, i.e. planning, deciding, concentrating on details, as more effective than those in all other view categories. This study demonstrates the positive effect of nature viewed from a residence hall window on student's intellectual functioning. How much greater would the benefits be if only a short walk away one could be immersed in natural surroundings?

A study by Ulrich (1979) of students who were experiencing mild stress after a final exam showed that the group viewing color slides of everyday nature had greater recovery than those viewing city scenes lacking vegetation. When this study was repeated by Honeymen (1990) she found the group viewing the vegetationless urban scenes actually registered increased stress and less positive affect.

Amongst many assessments psychologists use of mental functioning, proofreading is considered a rigorous and valid method of gauging attentional focus. This familiar scholastic endeavor, has a clear relationship to educational performance. Hartig et al. (1991) reported two studies where proofreading was used as a test of nature's attention-restoring effect. In the first study, three groups were compared; one that went on a wilderness trip, one that went on an urban vacation, and the third group had no vacation. Only the wilderness vacationers showed improvements on their proofreading scores. In the second study, after 40 minutes of tasks designed to induce attentional fatigue participants were given a break period consisting of a nature walk, or a walk around town, or passive relaxation sitting back. Then they were given a proofreading test. Those who had taken the nature walk scored the highest.

Most telling is Ulrich's (et al. 1991) investigations into recovery from stress. 120 undergraduate volunteers underwent a 10 minute stressor period while viewing a black and white film about the prevention of work accidents, "It Didn't Have to Happen", that has been found to be an effective stressor in previous studies (Lazarus 1965). This was followed up with another viewing session where the volunteers were instructed to relax while looking at either scenes of trees and streams or pedestrians moving through an outdoor shopping mall, or traffic on urban streets in a business district. During these experimental periods blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and skin conductance of the subjects was recorded. Along with the physiological recordings subjective mental states of the students were assessed using the Zukerman Inventory of Personal Reactions (ZIPERS) (Zuckerman 1977), a test used throughout the various studies previously mentioned.

As shown in the reprinted graphs of data from Ulrich's study, the simulated natural environment produced a significantly different recovery course than did the urban environments. The skin conductance recordings in figure 1, familiar as the polygraph test or lie detector, show the natural scenes caused very rapid recovery toward the pre-experimental unstressed baseline. In only four minutes about 80% of the electrical fluctuations caused by involuntary sweating had regressed to a calmer state and continued to improve up to 95% of the way to normal in the next three minutes. The pulse transit times in figure 2, which reflect blood pressure, also showed nearly 80% recovery in four minutes for the group experiencing nature as a relaxer. By contrast, the group exposed to a follow up of street traffic didn't show any significant relaxation or stress recovery during 10 minutes. Stress levels evaluated through changes in voluntary muscle tension (figure 3) showed that muscle tension plunged for the nature viewing group; 90% relaxation in only four minutes.

The figures below show recovery from stress induced viewing a graphic accident injury movie. After the movie, subjects were exposed to everyday urban vs. natural settings: a busy street and an outdoor pedestrian mall vs. a forest environment. Figure 1 shows nervous sweating, figure 2 blood pressure, figure 3 involuntary muscle tension across the head and neck, and figure 4 heart rate. The nature setting produced the most and fastest recovery.

The heart rate data dramatically differentiates between urban and natural environments' effects on an individual. The graph in figure 4 shows completely different responses for the nature viewers as compared to the urban scene viewers during the recovery period. Heart rate is complex; situations stimulating the attention to external stimuli usually reduce heart rate. Both unpleasant and pleasant situations, if they elicit interest / intake, result in heart deceleration. Mental problem solving stress and other tensions increase heart rate. The complete difference between the reaction elicited by natural scenes as compared to the urban ones indicate natural environments engage the attention and produce considerable perceptual intake, whereas the urban scenes are unengaging.

Along with the physiological readings, the administered psychological tests showed significant results as well. The 10-minute nature viewing experience had decreased feelings of fear, anger, aggression below the initially reported pre-experimental baseline and increased positive feelings (affect). The recovery associated with the natural exposure was so pronounced that those in the nature-viewing group were actually feeling better than before the beginning of the experiment.

The physiological findings indicate that nature settings produce significant recovery from stress in only 4 minutes. This rapid recovery demonstrates that brief contact with vegetation can foster restoration from daily stress and work pressure. The psychological data suggests the importance a nearby garden of warmth could have, even for a drop-in of only 10 minutes. On this campus short informal drop-ins were one of the more common ways the previous greenhouses were utilized by students and staff.

In the case of employees, research has shown the importance of plants, flowers, trees, in the daily work experience to buffer against job strain and mental fatigue. (Lavina 1983, 1985, Leather 1998) Other investigations have corroborated the availability of nearby nature resulted in less perceived job pressure and job stress, fewer ailments and headaches, greater satisfaction and was a strong positive factor in enthusiasm about work. (R. Kaplan 1993)

National surveys have shown (Fried 1982, 1984) that the strongest predictor of local residential satisfaction was the ease of access to nature and that this was the second most important factor, after marital factors, in overall life satisfaction. Other studies, done in Michigan, (Frey 1981, R. Kaplan 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, Askawa 1984) found that neighborhood satisfaction was linked to the availability nearby nature and was significant in general life satisfaction as well. Therefore satisfaction at home with our local community could be strongly impacted by a green garden in January or February just across Grand River Avenue.

Actual physical health and medical recovery is affected by exposure to greenery and sunlight. Research has shown patients recovering from surgery who could see a small stand of trees from their hospital window recovered more quickly and required fewer painkillers than other patients whose windows looked at brick walls. (Ulrich 1984) In windowless intensive care units cases of delirium (Wilson 1972) and mortality rates (Wiley 1999) have been attributed to lack of sunlight and the deprivation of contact with any kind of nature. Many studies (Verderber 1982, 1986, Verderber, & Reuman 1987, Ulrich 1979, 1981, Keep 1980, Jesse et al. 1986, Heerwagen 1990) have convinced hospitals of the life-saving significance of nature. The Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations is reviewing new guidelines to ascertain the views a patient's room has of nature and how much can be seen laying flat in bed.

The Biodome would have numerous positive psychological and physical effects. In fact, these very real benefits were the basis for the public outcry against the impending loss of the Botany and Butterfly greenhouse set off in late 1997. Administrators were apparently unaware of the significance these greenhouses held for the campus community. This is not surprising as a quote from Rachel Kaplan illustrates, " In our current surroundings, a particular tree maybe the source of great individual affection, possibly because it has a special form or affords a comforting view or provides a comfortable place to sit and pause. How rarely any of us know of others' special places. In fact, one often does not become aware of such attachments until a threat arises." (Kaplan & Kaplan 1989)

Quiet, peacefulness and tranquility were the most prominent (79%) qualities reported in people's preferred settings at the Morton Arboretum in Chicago (Schroeder 1995). The Kaplan's long study (12 years) of the USDA's Outdoor Challenge (hiking) Program conducted in Michigan's upper peninsula found 85% of the participants commented in their journals on the peacefulness and tranquility they were experiencing, not just once but usually more than three times (Kaplan & Talbot 1983). Our own campus and community when surveyed responded with similar results; 61% looked forward to using the greenhouse for "Quiet time", or in peoples own words - "stress relief", "breaks", and "relaxation". Our objective is to provide a relaxing haven for a short break during the workday.

Clearly, nature can have a great effect on people; on campus, at work, where we live. Fortunately, Michigan and our beautiful campus are wonderfully endowed, and for 7 months of the year, one can go outside and enjoy. Unfortunately for students the majority of the school year is during the worst season. To breathe the moist, fragrant air of the tropical Biodome and clear one's mind of fatigue and stress would have great health and well-being benefits.

A woman and her elderly mother went to the local botanical conservatory together. They spent the afternoon wandering the gardens and enjoyed themselves immensely. Later that evening the woman received a call from her mother who was distraught because she'd left her cane at the garden. The next day she called the conservatory and explained about the lost cane. Though the garden was closed, the curator invited her to come down and they'd look for it together. When she arrived the curator presented her with the cane. She was greatly relieved and thanked him profusely, frequently apologizing for the inconvenience. The curator responded, "It was no trouble. It happens ALL the time."