Love of nature partly lies in the genes


Monday, 07 February, 2022

Love of nature partly lies in the genes

Spending time in natural spaces has been found to improve mental wellbeing, but different people experience and benefit from nature differently. An international team of researchers has now 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.

Led by Dr Chia-Chen Chang from the National University of Singapore (NUS), the researchers surveyed 1153 pairs of twins on the TwinsUK registry — the most clinically detailed twin study in the world — about how they experience nature, asking them to rate their familiarity with and desire to be in nature, and how frequently they visit natural spaces such as public parks and private gardens. The results were published in the journal PLOS Biology.

“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,” said study co-author Professor Richard Fuller, from The University of Queensland (UQ). “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% 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 researchers found that identical (monozygotic) twins, who share almost 100% of their genes, were more similar to each other in their orientation towards nature and how frequently they visited nature compared to fraternal (dizygotic) twins, who share around 50% of their genetic material. Heritability ranged from 46% for nature orientation to 34% for frequency of garden visits, suggesting a moderate influence of genetics over how people experience nature.

The research builds on 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, with environmental factors explaining more than half of the differences between individuals studied. People living in urban environments tended to have fewer nature experiences, due to, for example, limited access to gardens, highlighting the importance of availability in shaping nature-seeking behaviours. Heritability also declined with age, suggesting that genetics may become less influential as people age and experience a unique set of environmental conditions.

The study is said to provide the first evidence for a genetic component to both our predispositions towards nature and our tendency to visit natural spaces. Nature-oriented people may actively seek out nature even if it means travelling from their home, but diverse urban planning is needed to provide access to natural spaces — and the benefits they offer — for all, the study authors said.

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

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

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/JenkoAtaman

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