Feel connected to nature? It might be in your genes

Have you ever wondered why some people turn to wild places for solace, while others shudder at the thought of the untamed? Why some people’s idea of a great weekend away involves pitching a tent in a muddy field full of creepy crawlies, while others think camping is a lesser form of torture?

According to a new study published in PLOS Biology, the answer may be at least partially written into our genes.

In a collaboration with researchers from the National University of Singapore, the University of Queensland’s Professor Richard Fuller 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,” Fuller says.

Their approach to the question, using identical twins, allowed them to tease apart the strength of genetic versus environmental influences.

Fuller says the team were “truly surprised” by their results, finding that nature-loving behaviours were heritable between 34 and 48% of the time.

“This means there may be innate genetic differences among people’s psychological connection with natural environments and how they experience them,” says Fuller.

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

A genetic component to the relationship between humans and the biosphere has long been speculated, often under the moniker of the “biophilia hypothesis”, but this is the first time it has been convincingly demonstrated.

The current research builds genetic insight into our knowledge of nature-lust, which has previously been understood primarily through the lens of geographical circumstances. The new results suggest that while some of us may be genetically predisposed to connect with our wild side more than others, our circumstances still have a heady influence.

“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.”

Lead author Dr Chia-chen Chang from the National University of Singapore believes the insight from this study may help to better inform efforts to bring people closer to nature, an issue that is becoming increasingly important as the impact of growing urbanisation 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,” she says.

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

Chang says the process of connecting urban dwellers with the natural environment can prove challenging in our highly developed city-scapes, but that the benefits make the effort worthwhile.

“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 says.

“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 results also add to a growing body of research that relies on insights from the study of twins, with the current study involving participants from TwinsUK: the United Kingdom’s largest adult twin registry and most clinically detailed twin study in the world.

TwinsUK, which has more than 14,000 registered twin participants, has been instrumental in progressing understanding of how genetic variation relates to human health and disease, with data underpinning 76 individual studies and over 800 publications to date.

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