Feel connected to nature? It might be in your genes

For the first time, researchers have revealed how a person’s genes can play a part in their enjoyment of nature, potentially changing the way we look at our affinity with the natural world.

The University of Queensland’s Professor Richard Fuller , with collaborators at the National University of Singapore, compared data from more than 1,000 sets of identical twins to find out how genetics may influence our relationship with nature.

"We compared twins who had been raised together with twins raised apart, in an attempt to demonstrate genetic heritability of two traits: how strongly they feel connected to nature, and the amount of time a person spends in nature," Professor Fuller said.

"We were truly surprised by what we found.

"Depending on which characteristic you look at, these ’nature-loving’ behaviours were heritable between 34 and 48 percent of the time.

"This means there may be innate genetic differences among people’s psychological connection with natural environments and how they experience them.

"Our results help to explain why some people have a stronger desire than others to be in nature."

The participating twins were part of TwinsUK , the United Kingdom’s largest adult twin registry and the most clinically detailed twin study in the world.

The research builds upon past studies which have looked at the relationship between a person’s geographical circumstances (urban or rural) and their desire to seek out nature experiences.

"Our results reinforced previous findings that a person’s environment is the predominant driver behind their enjoyment of nature," Professor Fuller said.

"But the new information on the role of genetics in shaping our relationship with nature is a significant discovery."

Researcher from the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study, Dr Chia-Chen Chang said efforts to bring people closer to nature will become increasingly important, as the impact of a more urban lifestyle on mental health becomes clearer.

"We know that more and more people today are living in urban environments, and this is usually associated with more mental health issues," Dr Chang said.

"This includes lower levels of subjective wellbeing, a higher risk of psychiatric disorders, or increased depression and anxiety."

Dr Chang said the process of bringing nature closer to urbanites, or vice versa, will require solutions on multiple levels.

"Spending a little time at home in the garden can be a great way to experience some nature, but this can’t always be achieved, especially for those in urban areas," she said.

"Increasing accessibility to nature for urban residents through projects such as communal gardens will be hugely beneficial and will play an important part in improving people’s wellbeing overall."

The research has been published in PLOS Biology ( DOI: /10.1371/journal.pbio.3001500 ).