The Lovebug Effect: How spending timing in nature could change our bodies and influence our decisions to spend more time outdoors.

PhD student Jake Robinson, from the Department of Landscape Architecture, suggests that invisible biodiversity (i.e. microbiota) within and around us, could influence our desire to affiliate with natural environments.

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In a paper, co-written with Dr Martin Breed from Flinders University in Australia, Jake builds upon research and theory from microbiome science, environmental psychology and evolutionary biology to argue that ‘there is a coevolution which occurs between humans and microbes, and by altering our brain chemistry, microbes may even be able to manipulate our behaviour––for example, to influence the food choices we make or the environments we visit.’ 

‘Environmental microbes – for example those in the soil, in the air, and on plants – are thought to help train our immune systems,’ Jake said, ‘but in recent times we’ve been losing our connection with the great outdoors and all its biodiversity, including the vast array of microbes that cling to surfaces and sail through the atmosphere. 

‘Our diminishing connection with the natural world is thought to contribute to a rising trend in chronic diseases by reducing our contact with these diverse, and potentially health-promoting ‘bugs’ – as we’ve come to know them.’

The researchers argue that humans could in fact be meta organisms – a host plus trillions of microorganisms working symbiotically to form a functioning ecological unit. 

‘Indeed, we could actually view ourselves as walking ecosystems, so we suggest that there is good reason for humans and microbes to ‘work together’ to sustain the health and stability of this ecosystem,’ Jake said.

‘Part of this process could involve our decisions to spend time in nature, that is, to be immersed in dense clouds of invisible biodiversity and phytochemicals that are potentially beneficial to our health.’

Jake and Dr Breed argue that there are several possible pathways involved in this process – for example, microbes have been shown to produce an array of chemicals in the body that can hijack the communication system between the gut and the brain. However, other pathways that don’t involve direct manipulation could also play a role, such as microbially-influenced changes in inherited traits across generations, and in particular, those that maximise survival and reproduction. 

Dr Breed says ‘The human gut microbiome is thought to remain relatively stable after the first few years of life. It is during the initial weaning period that colonisation from environmental microbiota is likely to have the greatest impact.’ 

‘Some aspects of this article are likely to be controversial, but it is an important vehicle for generating discussion about how far microbiomes can go in terms of influencing human behaviour and health,’ Jake said. ‘If proven to be true, the Lovebug Effect could have important implications for our understanding of exposure to natural environments for health and wellbeing, and could contribute to an ecologically resilient future.’

So the next time you’re strolling through a woodland or a park, take a moment to think about how the invisible critters within and around you may have influenced your biophilic drive (desire to spend time in nature). 

Read the paper ‘The Lovebug Effect: Is the Human Biophilic Drive Influenced by Interactions between the Environment, the Host, and the Microbiome?

Follow Jake and Dr Breed’s work on Twitter. 


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