I've just been invited to speak at a local conference on "Health and the Built Environment." This excites me but also scares me to death both because it will be my first chance to speak to the very broad implications of my work in psychology as I've only recently begun to understand them, but also because this is a conference combining academics, NGOs and politicians. The intent of this conference, as I understand it, is not just for us to float lofty ideas at one another like great shining baubles in air but also to get some things started that will make a difference.
Happily, in addition to my usual rant about the psychological origins of our current state, I'm going to have some nice data to describe. One of my students, Deltcho Valtchanov, has been working on a project in which he makes people feel all stressed and anxious (we're allowed to do that in psychology labs) and then gives them an opportunity to calm themselves down by wandering through a stunningly beautiful virtual environment filled with trees, ferns, meadows, waterfalls, and lovely little ponds. We've been amazed at the intensity with which some of our participants have been able to immerse themselves in this environment (quite literally sometimes - they often ask permission to plunge into the healing waters for a swim, and sometimes seem confused about what might happen to them if they do so -- did they bring a change of clothes?). We've also been very pleased by the extent to which it is possible to duplicate the benefits of a real walk in real woods with our simulations. This is a tremendous advance for us. It gives us a tool to begin to understand the sources of the healing benefits of nature so that perhaps we can focus and amplify them. In cities, there isn't much greenspace to play around with. It'd be a marvellous thing to know how to get it right.