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Abstract

Exposure to natural environments over urban ones has beneficial effects on human psychological functioning, particularly in improving affective state and providing cognitive restoration. Because nature is so highly preferred, it has been difficult to disentangle what effects result from nature itself and what are simply due to exposure to a highly preferred stimulus. In this dissertation, I examine whether the aesthetic preference for nature accounts for any, some, or all of its cognitive and affective benefits. In Chapter 1, I investigate whether the highly documented nature preferences observed in adults are also found in 4- to 11-year-old children. I found that, compared to adults, children show stronger preferences for urban environments, though this urban preference lessens with age. Further, though children do not like nature as much as adults, children with more nearby nature had lower parent-reported inattentiveness, suggesting this benefit is not dependent upon liking nature. In Chapter 2, I tested whether natural environments have some additional positive effect on mood, above and beyond what can be attributed to preference. The results of this set of studies supported an overwhelmingly preference-based account of nature’s short-term affective benefits. In Chapters 3 and 4, I examine whether cognitive restoration is elicited by images or videos of nature when compared to equally preferred urban environments. Unfortunately, these studies did not provide evidence for either a strong role of preference or environment type in predicting cognitive restoration. To examine whether neural indices of cognitive restoration could be found in natural over urban environments, Chapter 4 also used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure changes in prefrontal and parietal cortical activation during cognitive tasks and virtual environmental exposure. While no effects of environment type were found in fNIRS activity during the post-video cognitive task, fNIRS activity did, overall, reliably map on to cognitive load and performance. Taken together, these studies suggest that nature preferences are not universal across ages, and that preference matters more for the affective than for the cognitive benefits of nature exposure.

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