In a recent study commissioned by the National Trust, neuroscientists and behavioural experts investigated the importance of place and whether it is influential enough to improve wellbeing.
In 1948, the poet W.H. Auden coined the word ‘Topophilia’, describing the way in which a personal connection with a place can form. Auden explored the way in which identity and place interact closely in order to create a sense of belonging. Ultimately, it is thought that this sense of inclusion can sincerely improve wellbeing.
Using fMRI brain technology, the way in which people react to places and their associations can be better understood. General behavioural responses were also analysed, with interviews and online surveys taking place. This enabled participants to use both verbal and body language to express the relevance of their most cherished spaces.
The National Trust were hoping to understand just how deeply connected we are with certain places, based on their importance in our personal timelines, their current importance in our lives, and whether we associate them with someone special.
These three categories were integral to the study, with plenty of respective anecdotes.
Emotional connections with places in participant’s former years included responses such as, “I first remember coming to Wycoller village when I was 6 or 7. I’ve got a lot of memories here of playing amongst the ruins, with my brother and sisters, while my parents watched me. It has made me who I am today, and whenever I visit those memories come flooding back.” – Frances, Lancashire.
When connections to significant others were made, people described places that they can enjoy with someone else; somewhere in which they can build on their relationship and exist as a signifier of what they have. One response reads, “Morecombe Beach means so much to me and my family, we scattered my mum’s ashes here and I too want my ashes scattered here with her. I feel a strong spiritual connection with Morecombe Promenade especially now that mum rests here.” – Ian, Lancashire.
Lastly, connections to the present day were also identified as incredibly significant to many people – 41% of those in the study infact. Often, these areas provide somewhere for people to experience a sense of escapism in a frequently overwhelming world. Bello from London describes his place: “South Norwood Country Park gives me and my family so much. Whether we want to go cycling, go blackberry picking, go for a BBQ or play a game, it’s there for us.”
Feedback from our Thrive Practitioners suggests that Thrive rooms are areas of solace for plenty of children and young people who may find other environments, such as the classroom, difficult to navigate. Thrive rooms can provide somewhere for children to find a sense of calm, continue their academic work in a more suitable setting, or simply explore other activities completely – crafts, cooking, and sensory play being just a few. Creating a space in which children feel that they can be authentic, feel secure, valued and understood has, time and time again, shown to improve wellbeing.
From the National Trust research, it is evident that places can have this positive impact in abundance. The fMRI research showed that areas of emotional processing are highly responsive to meaningful places compared with places of no significance or with objects – whether they are personal or not.
Ranging from countryside locations to more urban landscapes, people identify extremely emotionally with those places of importance.
These emotional responses gathered in the study were largely positive, including calm, joy, contentment, energy, and a sense of belonging. Auden’s ‘Topophilia’ is certainly still relevant – the research project concluded that senses of nostalgia, security, and mindfulness can significantly improve wellbeing.
The full study can be found here. It’s a wonderfully interesting read, particularly the neuroscientific evidence for the emotional connection we find with places of deep meaning.
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