Obese, antisocial, friendless and afraid. That’s how a group of 28 authors described kids who don’t get to play outdoors, after Oxford University Press published a children’s dictionary that omitted words such as canary, clover, pasture and blackberry (the fruit) to make room for newer ones including attachment, blog and BlackBerry (the electronic gadget). A generation ago, 40% of children played regularly in natural areas. Now, it’s 10%. Instinctively, most of us feel this shift can’t be healthy.
And it’s not just kids. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 90% of their time indoors. We’re constantly told that we’re losing our connection with nature, even suffering from what has been called “nature deficit disorder”. But how can we know for sure that the connection is being lost? Psychologists Selin Kesebir of LBS and her twin sister Pelin Kesebir of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, wanted to find out.
Connecting to nature is good for wellbeing, mental health and cognitive performance,” says Dr Selin Kesebir. “There’s mountains of data on the positive effects on us – and there’s also evidence that contact with nature is linked to pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours, which means this isn’t just about us, it’s about the future.” Dr Kesebir cites an experiment where participants who viewed a short video of natural spaces engaged in more sustainable behaviour than those who watched a video of human-based spaces.
“From viewing pictures of lakes and hills to walking in natural environments, exposure to nature leads to faster stress recovery, mental restoration and improved cognitive function. But how do you measure how connected we are to nature today compared with past generations? The empirical evidence is scarce,” she says.
Books, songs and movies that mention nature – or don’t
The researchers considered all the various ways in which people connect with nature and the difficulty of capturing meaningful numbers in this area. “How can we count all the times people stop to watch a sunset or listen to birds chirping or how long they spend walking tree-lined streets? We could certainly ask these questions to living people, but we couldn’t ask people who lived 100 years ago. Instead, we turned to the cultural products - books, songs and movies - they created,”
The cultural products we create reflect the times we live in. “Works of popular culture, we reasoned, should reflect the extent to which nature occupies our collective consciousness,” says Dr Kesebir. “If novelists, songwriters or filmmakers have fewer encounters with nature these days than before, or if these encounters do not register with them, or if they don’t expect their audiences to respond to it, nature should feature less frequently in their works.”
The researchers drew up a list of 186 nature-related words belonging to four categories: general words relating to nature such as cloud, dew or sunrise; names of flowers like carnation, lilac or sunflower; names of trees - birch, juniper or willow; and birds’ names such as blackbird, hawk or owl. Then they analysed how often these occurred in the output of popular culture. They looked at English-language fiction, pop songs and film plots, each of which featured thousands of examples.
For fiction, they used Google’s n-gram tool to discover the frequency of all the words in their lexicon between 1901 and 2000. For song lyrics, they used a specialist software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). This analysed the words’ occurrence in the top 100 hits between 1950 and 2011. For movies, they fed every English title on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) between 1930 and 2014 into the LIWC software.
When indoors became the new outdoors
The results were consistent across books, songs and movies: “The space taken by nature has been dwindling in the collective imagination and cultural conversation after the 1950s. Nature features significantly less in English popular culture today than it did in the first half of the 20th century,” says Dr Kesebir.
Tuning out from the natural world