Why do places mean so much?

We've always believed that natural and historic places have a powerful effect on all of us. Now, for the first time, there's scientific proof.

Find out about places

Is there a place that’s part of who you are? Somewhere you feel more like you?

As a conservation charity, with the help of our supporters, we look after the places that we believe bring us genuine happiness and wellbeing.

Now, for the first time, it's possible to investigate this belief using pioneering brain-scanning techniques at the University of Surrey.

We also spoke to more than 2,000 people across the country, to find out what special places mean to them.

What did the research uncover?

Do you have a childhood memory of a holiday that seems especially vivid? Perhaps just seeing a photograph of a place that you love is enough to make you smile. It turns out that many of us feel this way too.

Although we know which parts of the brain we use when we think about places, nobody has tried to measure the emotional impact of these places before.

We wanted to understand the depth of people’s connection with place so we undertook a research experiment to find out. The detailed results can be found in our Places That Make Us report, which you’ll find a link to at the end of this article.

In the first part of the research 20 people took part in an experiment, at the University of Surrey.

Researchers at the university measured volunteers’ brain activity while the volunteers were shown pictures of landscapes, houses, other locations and personally meaningful objects. Places with strong personal ties caused their brains to get excited, more excited than looking at any of the other photographs.

Specifically, the scanning showed that an area of the brain associated with emotional responses, called the amygdala, was fired up.

This tells us that we have special relationships with places. Meaningful places have a significance that personal possessions, or more general locations, don’t share.

In a second part of the research we surveyed more than 2,000 people, asking about their connections to meaningful places.

For many, childhood memories are important. 

For others, a link to loved ones forges a special attachment to a particular place.

More surprising was that for over 40 per cent of those we surveyed, their meaningful places were recent discoveries. Whether it’s with family, alone or just out walking the dog, it seems we visit these places to relax, enjoy nature or simply get away from our everyday cares.

Whatever they might be, our participants agreed strongly on three feelings about favourite places:
1.    A feeling of belonging
2.    Feeling physically and emotionally safe
3.    Being driven there by a strong internal pull
 

The three most common feelings about special places

  • 86% 'this place is part of me'
  • 60% 'I feel safe here'
  • 79% 'I'm drawn here by a magnetic pull'

What else do places give us?

The participants in our survey also told us about the calm and joy they experience. Many people said that a visit to their meaningful place grounds them, helps them ease stress and gives them much needed ‘me-time’.

These feelings can be hard to put into words, but all point to a sense of positive wellbeing.

Visiting special places moves people in many ways. Ann-Marie’s mother enjoyed the gardens at Claydon, in Buckinghamshire, while her father enjoyed the buildings and history. For Ann-Marie it was the lives of the people who had lived there; the social history.

‘I like the voices and the stories you hear,’ she says, and this keeps her going back for more.

For many, the strongest feelings they could describe were of calm, joy and contentment, energy and a sense of belonging.

Margaret visits Sutton House in London regularly to spend time with retired friends. She says: ‘You have to go there to know, and then you think – oh yes.'
 

Walking along the coast in autumn

For ever, for everyone

The National Trust was founded 120 years ago with the belief that access to special places was a human need.

Now, as we use science and technology to explore what these places mean to us, it’s clear that this belief is as true today as it was back then.

Places that ignite our curiosity matter, as do the places that make us feel safe and give us a sense of belonging. With your help, we’ll continue to protect them.

" The need of quiet, the need of air, and I believe the sight of sky and of things growing, seem human needs ..."
Lindisfarne Castle

Places that make us 

The full results of the research, with a more detailed summary, can be read in our Places that make us report.

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