National Trust reveals how places shape who we are

Press release
Kevin and Ged walking on the Durham coast
Published : 12 Oct 2017 Last update : 06 Dec 2017

From the setting of your earliest memory, to a significant place that evokes memories of a loved one, we all have certain places that are intensely meaningful to us. The National Trust has today released pioneering brain research, which for the first time proves meaningful places play a huge part in our emotional and physical wellbeing.

Working with leading academics at the University of Surrey and research experts at Walnut Unlimited, the conservation charity commissioned an in-depth fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) study to measure how our brain reacts to places of significance. This was complemented by extensive qualitative and quantitative research across a four month period.

The study, a first of its kind, found places of meaning generate a significant response in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions and proves places can enhance wellbeing.

The findings can be explored in two key areas: 

Neurophysiological findings:

  • The brain generates an emotional response to places an individual deems to be significant such as feeling joyful, calm and energised
  • The brain’s emotional response to special places is much higher than towards meaningful objects, such as a wedding ring or photograph. This suggests that the place where a person got married contains greater emotional importance than the ring they received on the day
  • Meaningful places can provide us with much needed space to think and reinforce wellbeing. Two thirds of those surveyed (64%) said their special place makes them feel calm and provides an escape from everyday life (53%)
  • Almost half (43%) said it helps them re-evaluate their stresses and worries, with a further 41% saying it makes them feel emotionally secure. This is particularly interesting in the context of recent studies with  8 million people in the UK saying they have experienced some form of anxiety (with women and people under 35 especially affected)
  • Meaningful places were also said to play a key role in shaping people’s identity, across all ages. 67% of younger people said their meaningful place has shaped who they are, while 60% of over 55s felt nostalgic when visiting their special place, as it reminded them of a significant time in their life

Behavioural findings:

  • Our neurophysiological response to special places has an impact on how we preserve, pass on and share our love for places as 92% said they would be upset if their meaningful place was lost
  • 79% talked of a strong desire to share the connection with others
  • 68% said they already try to protect their meaningful place, through mall actions such as picking up litter to longer-term involvement through organised protection

Speaking of the research, Dr. Andy Myers said: “For the first time we have been able to prove the physical and emotional benefits of place, far beyond any research that has been done before. 

“fMRI opens a window into the brain allowing us to explore automatic emotional responses, scientifically demonstrating a tangible link between people and places that is often difficult to verbally describe.

“The study has established that our brain responds in a very specific way to meaningful places which is something we do not see when we are shown meaningful objects such as a wedding ring or photograph. With meaningful places generating a significant response in areas of the brain known to process emotion, it’s exciting to understand how deep rooted this connection truly is.”

Nino Strachey, Head of Research and Specialist Advice for the National Trust, said: “The National Trust exists because our forward thinking founder Octavia Hill intrinsically knew the importance of places for people. Now, 122 years later, science has proven her mission is still as relevant and important today.

“This research confirms places we love not only shape who we are , but offer deep physical and  psychological benefits making it even more vital that we look after them for future generations.

“For many people, the strength of their connection to a place means they have a strong desire to protect it. This desire echoes the work the National Trust does, looking after special places for the nation, supported by our volunteers and five million members.”

The research was carried out with the University of Surrey and an external research partner, Walnut Unlimited and used three different approaches – qualitative in-depth interviews, a quantitative survey of 2,000 respondents and fMRI imaging – to understand the neurophysiological connection between people and place and behavioural outputs. Meaningful places were defined as places that are located outside of the home i.e. not a person’s home, that they have a strong emotional connection towards. These included woodland areas, coastal areas, buildings and historic sites. Please see section III of the report for more information on our research methodology.

Press.Office@nationaltrust.org.uk