Places that Make Us: The Importance of Location in Self and Mental Health

In a unique research endeavour, the National Trust set out to ascertain the link between people and place, to find out more about this long acknowledged, but little understood, complex human relationship with locations.

In conjunction with the University of Surrey and Walnut Unlimited, the project explored how places shape lives, sculpt behaviour and impact emotion. Entitled, Places that Make Us, the study provides scientific backing to the words of Octavia Hill and the entire ethos of the National Trust she helped form: “The need of quiet, the need of air, and I believe the sight of sky and of things growing, seem human needs, common to all.”  The research took three courses, magnetic resonance imaging physiological response, qualitative and quantitative, in order to gather a comprehensive bank of data and opinion, to truly ‘understand the depth of people’s connection with place.’

Firstly neurophysiological responses to special places was charted. Twenty people participated in the study. The participants viewed three different types of images in a random order, three times. The images included places and objects meaningful and not meaningful to them and quantifiable emotional images, to which the reaction was predictable. By tracking the oxygen supply to differing emotional areas of the brain, the response to special places, so elusive and indescribable, was visible. The amygdala, a tiny area of the brain which is central to personal feelings, was found to undergo an ‘automatic, unconscious emotional response’ when confronted with an image of a special place. This response was much more profound in the amygdala when confronted with place over objects. A wedding ring or a photograph did not inspire the same surge of activity, leading the report to conjecture that ‘places contain a greater degree of emotional charge than objects.’

The medial prefrontal cortex processes the positive experiences associated with special places and appraises situations. The research found that ‘the positive memories and feelings we associate with […] place are accessed and become conscious’ in this cortex. Our feelings are awoken through accessing memories of place and appraising the situations within it, meaning ‘personally relevant places are able to elicit thoughts about oneself being in this place, suggesting that we transport ourselves mentally back to places of meaning.’ The Parahippocampal Place Area is responsive to places, but ‘personally relevant places elicited thoughts about oneself being in this place.’ The human mind and body experiences a ‘deep visceral connection’ when confronted with special places and undergoes an ‘automatic emotional response’ which is demonstrates the ‘strong emotional connection between people and places.’

We know our brain is raised to a humming, time travelling apex by special places, but why are those places special to us? Two in-depth interviews with 11 members of the public were undertaken wherein their language use and opinions were explored. The first interview took place in their home and the next in a special place, to explore the different responses which were inspired. In addition to this a survey of 2,000 people explored the feelings evoked by place and what it would mean if these places no longer existed and the importance of preservation.

People highlighted a range of locations, from urban to suburban, from wild to rural, home and abroad as important to them and for reasons equally as diverse, including nostalgia and links to special people. Over a third of people value a location because it is linked to a significant other. It is emblematic of a shared experience, emotional nourishment or somewhere where they learnt about each other and remains a constant reminder of that step which is ever enduring. Nostalgia and the traces of their formative years, for 42% of people is why they return to a place or cherish it dearly. The location remains a constant in an ever-changing life and serves as a reminder of days when belonging, identity and dreams were that bit brighter and bolder. The report highlighted how nostalgic locations are important for providing ‘a stable sense of self and allowing people to compare their present and past self, which has a restorative impact on aspects of psychological wellbeing such as self-esteem.’ The value a place has in the very moment, informs the desires of 41% of people. A connection with the here and now, formed of a regular family visit, a proximity to home, a moment of silence or a pursuit of beauty. Whatever motivates the elevation of a place within the mind of an individual, a constant remains the desire to visit it more often, indicating the special bond that pulls people towards loved spaces.

How do places we value make us feel? Locations which are special to us support us in our wellbeing, our security, nostalgia and survival. Over half of those surveyed described how they felt like they belonged when visiting their special place and eight out of ten people saw it as a part of themselves and their identity. Two thirds felt calm in their special location, using the opportunity to re-energise and seek solitude. These feelings of calm, coupled with joy and peace supports mental wellbeing by encouraging the revaluation of worries and stress. Away from the demands of life there is an opportunity for reflection, distraction and enjoyment of place, which are essential to positive mental health. Over half of people surveyed felt ‘in a safe place’, both mentally and physically as their chosen place provides emotional security, refuge and comfort. This security stems from a fondness and familiarity with the location. We are joyful in these places, our mood is boosted, expressed through open body language as we appreciate place. The report tells us that ‘the feelings of calm and joy that people experience at their special place supports their mental wellbeing and ability to achieve their goals.’ The report explores how discovery also fuels appreciation of place, inspiring repeat visits as the mind seeks out new sights it missed on the previous occasion, particularly as the location changes through seasons and occasions.

It appears only logical that a love of place would inspire a desire to protect and promote. Love of place manifests, says the report in ‘a strong desire and need to share and pass on the experiences for future generations.’ Three quarters of people want to pass on this valued love to those they love and even more sought to foster a shared happiness centred in place with others. The research found that 92% of people would be upset if the place they valued was lost and this inspires 61% to actively try and protect it, through deeds both big and small.

In 1948 W.H Auden coined the term ‘Topophilia’ to describe the unbreakable bond between person and valued place; a bond that informs identity and fuels an ‘underlying sense of belonging.’ People need this link with location to think, to reminisce, to be inspired, to escape or to recharge. It is essential to mental wellbeing, to a sense of home, security and personal restoration. Topophilia leads us to seek the protection of place and the sharing of it with those we love, so that it may enrich their lives too. 

By Daisy Whittingham of Handsam Ltd

Handsam Ltd is a leading provider of compliance consultancy services, online management systems, support and advice to the education sector. Visit their online resource website at compliance.handsam.education to find out more about their offering to schools.

Handsam Ltd is a leading provider of compliance consultancy services, online management systems, support and advice to the education sector.

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