SPUR 2021: Exploring the Effect of Nature Imagery using Electroencephalography


Writers, philosophers, and outdoor enthusiasts alike have long believed that spending time in nature is good for the mind and the body. In line with this, many researchers have studied how exposure to nature can improve an individual’s mood, emotions, stress physiology, and attentional capacity. In our lab at the University of Utah, we use electroencephalography (EEG) to explore whether or not immersion in nature changes our brain activity. To do this, we take participants on a 5-day camping trip and record their brain activity before, during, and after the trip. So far, we have found changes in three brain wave components called the error-related negativity, the reward positivity, and the P300. However, access to nature is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more people move to urban centers and protection of wilderness spaces continues to be threatened. Therefore, the current project will explore if viewing images of nature is powerful enough to elicit changes in these brain components. Participants’ brain activity will be recorded after viewing images of either natural or urban environments, and we will compare these laboratory-collected results to the previous findings we observed on the camping trips. This research is important, as it may help answer the long-standing question regarding what “dosage” of nature is required to elicit changes in the brain. This research may also reveal a more accessible option for individuals that don’t have access to real nature, such as those in prisons or hospitals, to gain the benefits associated with nature exposure.

Student Role

The SPUR student can be expected to play a very hands-on role with this project. While much of the “conceptualization” stage of the project will already be complete, we would like the student to be involved in each stage of the project beyond that. Specifically, we will expect the student to be primarily responsible for the data collection portion of the study. This would involve recruiting participants, scheduling them to come into the lab, and collecting the EEG data while participants complete a series of cognitive tasks. After data collection is complete, we plan on having the student involved in the pre-processing of the EEG data and the creation of the event-related potential plots. As the program requires, we expect that the student will also present their work at the end of the summer and will encourage the student to submit their findings to the undergraduate research journal. The student can expect to gain extensive experience in EEG research- particularly in “capping” participants and learning the basics of MatLab and R for data processing and analysis.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

This experience will be valuable for a student no matter what they choose in life. If the student wishes to go to graduate school, this sort of direct research experience will be crucial to the success of their application. We provide direct experience in measuring and understanding the human brain with EEG and other behavioral tools. If the student is interested in neuroscience, this experience will allow them to master the skills of collecting and processing EEG data. In addition, the student will have a unique opportunity to participate in open science practices. We plan to submit this study as a Registered Report, meaning we will go through the peer-review processes prior to collecting any data, ensuring honest science and strong hypotheses. However, beyond simply research experience for graduate school, we believe that our lab fosters development in a number of skills that transfer beyond the research environment. Students will learn project management and organizational skills, the soft skills associated with conducting human research studies, and gain valuable computer skills such as coding in Matlab, R and Python. A deeper understanding of the scientific method, as well as how our brain’s attentional system works, will also aid them in their everyday lives and make them critical consumers of science.

Remote Contingency Plan

If SPUR cannot occur in person this year, the SPUR student will help us get another nature and cognition-related project off the ground--our Nature and Cognition Citizen Science Project. Because it is difficult to collect large quantities of data in nature due to logistical concerns and time constraints, we have decided to leverage the many organizations that already go on nature trips on a regular basis, such as outdoor education programs or wilderness therapy programs. We are working on creating a large-scale study in which citizen scientists, or lay data collectors, will be trained to collect data on a volunteer basis, on their own terms, and enter it into a massive online database. The SPUR student will create online training materials for these citizen scientists, set up the database that will store the data, and apply for IRB approval. If the study begins before the end of the summer, the SPUR student will also help train our citizen scientists over Zoom and will advertise the study on social media and email list-servers. Since this study is designed to run entirely online, all of the described work can be performed remotely. The goal of this project is two-fold. Our first goal is to collect a larger quantity of data than would otherwise be feasible over a much more diverse participant sample, and over a broader geographical area. Our second goal is to provide an educational opportunity for our citizen scientists, and those they collect data from, on the scientific method.

David Strayer

College of Social & Behavioral Science

Logistically, the mentee can expect to work closely with both me and my graduate students, Sara LoTemplio and Amy McDonnell. This core research team will be available for weekly meetings with the student to assess progress and answer questions. Specific training on collecting EEG data from participants, Google Suite, Python, and Matlab will be conducted by Amy and Sara at the beginning of the summer. Students are expected and encouraged to ask questions and request hands-on help when they need it. As for the mentor/mentee relationship itself, I believe in a mentorship style where communication, empathy, and challenge are key components at all times. Communication is at the core of mentorship--from the outset of a project, throughout it, and beyond. I, and my graduate students, will meet with the student to communicate about individual expectations, responsibilities, and the goals of the project. Empathy is also key in the mentorship process for me--mistakes happen, people are different, and we all feel stress and pressure sometimes. Empathy means understanding that each person is different, and success means helping someone capitalize on their strengths and account for their weaknesses. Finally, my mentorship style is one of challenge by choice. I hold high expectations of my research assistants and expect them to learn a lot, but I also make sure they know I am available to provide support when they need it.