Natural settings lower stress: Applying the science of environmental psychology

In the last of a five-part series, a lecturer from JCU Singapore tells Douglas Chew that our environment affects our minds

According to Dr Dillon, research has shown that people’s well-being and their environments are correlated. PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Do you find yourself drawn to holidays in familiar places or to certain settings like beaches or mountains? Do certain places evoke memories, a sense of belonging or deep emotions?

Our surroundings affect our well-being. "Our environment including where we live and work can to some extent affect the way we think, feel and behave, but this is a two-way street because the ways we think and feel can also draw us to certain types of environments," says Dr Denise Dillon, associate dean of psychology and education at JCU Singapore.

The field of environmental psychology studies how human beings interact with their built and natural environment. Research in the field has shown that stress levels can be lowered by regular exposure to greenery and water features, even if they are simulated and not entirely natural.

Researcher Gary Felsten demonstrated that students rated campus study settings that have dramatic natural murals with water or actual nature as the most restorative to their attention spans. The least conducive settings lacked any views of nature.

Another psychology researcher, Dr Roger Ulrich, conducted experiments where participants watched a 10-minute video showing serious work-related injuries intended to wind them up, followed by another video with outdoor settings, either of natural vegetation and water or urban environments with street sounds. The nature video resulted in a faster recovery from stress than the urban one.

Such studies have influenced the growth of biophilic design. Biophilia is the innate human tendency to affiliate with life and life-like processes. Singapore is a good example of a biophilic city that, despite being highly urbanised and densely populated, has many biophilic components to make it a garden city.

Healing environments

Such biophilic design includes natural settings such as lush Bishan Park or a clean Kallang River. It also includes vertical gardens and green facades on buildings such as Marina Barrage or the open-air amphitheatre at Dhoby Ghaut Green, which incorporates spirals and shell-like structures reminiscent of shapes found in nature.

At Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, a healing environment is created through strategic planting of greenery, where each bed has direct access to green views. Khoo Teck Puat Hospital incorporates biophilic elements such as roof gardens, fish ponds and corridor and balcony planter boxes.

"These gardens are not just for show," says Dr Dillon. "They are managed as a sustainable ecosystem that offers practical and educational opportunities for patients, visitors and community volunteers by enabling people to learn about natural processes and to interact with non-human life forms."

Environmental psychology is just one of the interesting subjects you can study at JCU, which offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, and a graduate diploma in Psychology. These courses are all accredited through the Australian Psychology Accreditation Council.

Students interested in pursuing psychology can take up its three-year Bachelor of Psychological Science course. High performing students can gain entry to the Honours year or its Graduate Diploma of Psychology, which will position them for subsequent graduate-level studies.

Those intending to become registered psychologists require postgraduate training, such as JCU's Master of Clinical Psychology or Doctor of Psychology (Clinical Psychology) and a period of supervised practice.

Think like a scientist

"The ability and willingness to think like a scientist are the foundation for a good psychology practitioner. Our clinical courses are founded on the scientist-practitioner model, which emphasises the need for the integration of science and practice," says Dr Dillon.

Psychology undergraduate students at JCU get rigorous training in research methods and statistical analysis, which culminates in a research project that accounts for half their final-year grade.

Graduate students receive professional training through an integr ation of coursework, clinical practicum and research, with clinical placements of supervised practice happening in a range of locations including hospitals and private clinics.

Clinical psychology remains the most sought-after specialisation for psychology students, though one can also specialise in Health Psychology, Forensic Psychology, Sport and Exercise Psychology, Educational Psychology or Counselling Psychology. A fast growing field is Industrial/Organisational Psychology, which is forecasted to grow by 53 per cent by 2022 in the United States.

"Industrial/Organisational psychologists will find themselves attractive to companies wanting human resource managers who have a sound understanding of managerial and organisational processes and interactions," adds Dr Dillon.

Check out JCU Singapore's Open House on May 14. Go to www.jcu.edu.sg/openhouse to sign up.

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