Special Places Enhance Well-Being More Than Objects

Scientific research at the University of Surrey shows that people experience a more intense feeling of well-being, contentment and happiness when seeing special places than meaningful objects such as photos.  

We all have a place in the city or the countryside that means something special to us. Because it makes us feel relaxed.  Or because it makes us feel ‘at home’.  But what exactly is the reason behind it? Scientists at the University of Surrey, United Kingdom, examined the depth of people’s connection with places.

During the research eleven respondents of different ages were subject to two in-depth interviews.  The first one took place at their home to talk about places that are important to them. The second one involved a visit to one of their favourite spots. This to capture the excitement and the emotions. Finally, over 2.000 people completed an online survey.

To measure the emotional effect that places have on people, the researchers used functional MRI-scans to track increased activity in a particular brain region. With this MRI technique the whole brain can be visualised, allowing researchers to look into areas known for processing emotion.

Twenty participants viewed three different types of images in a random order, including images of ten places and ten objects meaningful to them such as a coastline, historical sites, buildings or forests. Followed by ten images of everyday places and objects, as well as ten positive and ten negative images. Each picture was presented three times.

The leading academics found that the emotional brain areas, among which the amygdala that plays a key role in the processing of emotions, responded significantly higher to special places than meaningful objects. One can therefore conclude that places contain a greater degree of emotional charge than objects.

A strong response was also shown in the medial prefrontal cortex which helps to evaluate situations, for example whether it is positive or negative. This suggests that positive memories and feelings we associate with meaningful places are accessed by the brain and become conscious.

The final brain area involved is the Parahippocampal Place Area (PPA) that is important for the encoding and recognition of places. Here, the scientists conclude that meaningful places elicit thoughts about oneself being in this place. In general, one can say that seeing images of meaningful places create a significant emotional response in the brain which is consistent with the physical sensations these places make people feel.

Two thirds or 64 percent of the respondents agree that their special place makes them feel calm, while three in five (63 percent) says they feel happy and content. It even helps to get out of a bad mood. Others say it is their escape from everyday life. 28 percent, especially young people (from 18 to 34 years) feel excited, youthful and exhilarated, while 55+ year olds feel nostalgic.

The results also show that eight out of ten (or 86 percent) people describe their place as being part of them. Some (79 percent) even experience an internal pull that drives them to visit their meaningful place.

Now there is scientific evidence that there is a strong physical and emotional connection between places and people. Moreover, these places have a positive effect on our wellbeing, which is especially true for natural places. In other words, visit your special spot as much as possible. It will greatly benefit you. 🙂

The study was commissioned by the National Trust, a conservation charity in the United Kingdom that is responsible for managing and maintaining immovable cultural heritage such as nature reserves, beautiful gardens and historic buildings. The British organization is similar to Herita in Belgium.

If you are interested to read the full research report, click here

Source: The National Trust

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