Clemson University Feature Stories

Working closely with her students and those in the health care field, Ellen Vincent is helping others to become more aware of their surroundings — and the immense benefits that come along with doing so.

The healing power of nature

By Victoria Witte
Office of Creative Services

Horticulturist Ellen Vincent is a firm believer in signs. Toward the beginning of her Ph.D. studies, the nature lover was sitting on her back porch, contemplating her thesis topic when a hawk flew right above her head. The soaring bird confirmed her future — she would examine the role between nature and people.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the relationship between nature, people and health,” she said. “Throughout time, powerful associations between landscape and wellness have existed.”

Buddha, with his serenity and peace, is frequently portrayed near trees. The ancient Greeks built temples to Aesculapius — the god of medicine and healing. Often situated in a valley and surrounded by trees, the temples of Aesculapius, with pure water and fresh air, were considered by all to be a safe haven.

“Stories like these fascinate me,” Vincent said. “Healing was more of a lifestyle.”

Vincent, an environmental landscape extension specialist in the environmental horticulture department, hopes that her research can stimulate awareness of the therapeutic benefits of nature. Just being out in nature can provide healing. Vincent’s research found that simply looking at photographs of nature could also ease the body’s pain. This led to her current research, which aims to uncover the most therapeutic landscape images for hospital surgery patients.

The first step was to create an interdisciplinary design strategy that incorporated rigorous methodology using both physiological and psychological data collection tools. She works with a strong team of Clemson professors from the architecture + health, psychology and experimental statistics departments.

Her second step was figuring out which types of images to employ. Images are selected using an evolutionary theory of landscape preference called the prospect refuge theory, in which they are divided into four categories.

  • Prospect images — allow the viewer to survey his surroundings.
  • Refuge images — allow the viewer to feel hidden.
  • Hazard images — make the viewer feel threatened.
  • Mixed prospect and refuge images — contain equal amounts of prospect and refuge characteristics.

Turning to students for help, Vincent conducted a multiphase study that started with determining which images would best represent the four categories. Then an experiment was conducted in a simulated hospital patient room on Clemson’s campus. Volunteers were asked to immerse their hands in a chilling bucket of ice water to simulate pain for up to two minutes while looking at various landscape photographs on the wall.

Vincent obtained heart rate and blood pressure data from the participants, as well as psychological data. She asked them a series of questions about their mood and pain levels and compared the results of each category of images with each other and with a control group. Mixed prospect and refuge landscape images offered the most pain relief.

She included these images in the formal research she conducted in a nearby hospital. Images were attached to patients’ beds before and immediately after surgery; patients then were asked to rank their pain and mood levels. Their heart rates, blood pressures and psychological survey responses were compared to those who didn’t view any images. Patients who received the image treatment showed a significant decrease in diastolic blood pressure.

Vincent plans to continue perfecting the methodology uncovering which landscape images are most therapeutic for different populations, with the intent of offering healing places — including Redfern Health Services on campus — reliable information when it comes to selecting images for their walls.

Vincent involved students from her landscapes and health interdisciplinary class in the research process, and they conducted surveys that were offshoots of her research.

“I wanted to give my students a taste of how to do this, so they’ll implement these research methods when determining peoples’ preferences, rather than having to rely on expert advice or professionals’ best guesses,” she said.

One group explored how males felt about the color purple — a topic that emerged when several males in the hospital said that the purple flower color in their image was too feminine. To see if this was the case across the board, male students on campus were surveyed and asked for their reaction to several different color renderings of the image. However, purple was found to be the preferred color, when compared with yellow and red, with the least amount of negative responses.

During a previous sorting task some participants admitted that they were afraid of water and had trouble ranking water images. This prompted one group of students to explore peoples’ fear of water. Students picked several types of water images and surveyed participants online, asking them which water features made them feel safest and which were uncomfortable. Interestingly, they found that urban features — such as fountains — created the most fear.

A third group of students used the same three images used in Vincent’s hospital study and surveyed the image preference of ill students in the waiting rooms at Redfern. They found the most preferred image also produced negative comments by some participants, so they rightly concluded that the second most preferred image that had no negative comments associated with it was the best choice for the Redfern wall — employing a “do no harm” tactic favored by Vincent.

Working closely with her students and those in the health care field, Vincent is helping others to become more aware of their surroundings — and the immense benefits that come along with doing so.


Know someone or something you think we should write about on the Clemson website? Email your idea to writer Crystal Boyles at boyles@clemson.edu.


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