Social media photographs reveal a connection between nature and fond memories

There is no easy way to quantify human-nature relationships and we still lack answers to very fundamental questions: how do we experience nature in our everyday lives? How does human interact with nature differently across countries?

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I spent most of my childhood vacations on my grandparents’ farm, which served as a source of financial income for my grandparents. As a child, the farm was more like a playground that we used to have fun activities, such as picking fruits, hiking, catching insects, talking and laughing. Nature has ever since been in the background of my childhood memories.

We, as human beings, receive multiple benefits from nature, such as farming, water provision, temperature regulation, air purification, and recreation. Some benefits are tangible and material, which can be calculated and converted to dollars. However, the benefits from nature also comprise intangible benefits that we cannot convert to dollars, such as our everyday interactions with nature and the role of nature in our memories.

There is no easy way to quantify these relationships and we still lack answers to very fundamental questions: how do we experience nature in our everyday lives? How does human interact with nature differently across countries?

Together with my team, we decided to answer these questions by analyzing the content of social media photographs. These photographs allow us to understand what and when people want to capture as memories and share with other people. We did this at an unprecedented global scale by leveraging on social media photographs and image recognition using machine learning algorithms. We used #tags to identify the contexts in which the photograph was taken, and we compared the content of photographs taken during different contexts: daily routines, fun activities, vacations, honeymoons, celebrations, and weddings. 


Figure 1. Word cloud showing the 40 most common nature labels detected in photographs that users tagged as #nature. This shows what nature elements that people associate with nature. 


After identifying what are specific nature elements that people commonly associate with nature, we extracted our target photographs within those 6 specific contexts (daily routines, fun activities, vacations, honeymoons, celebrations, and weddings). We found that, globally, nature was more likely to appear in photographs taken during fun activities, vacations, and honeymoons as compared to daily routines. This represents that people associate nature with fun or relaxing moments.

Figure 2. Examples of photographs taken during different social contexts (A) fun activity, (B) vacation, and (C) daily routine. Image content was analysed using the automated image recognition, which generated labels shown in green. Photographs provided by Roman Carrasco (A) and Chia-chen Chang (B,C)


This result can be explained by the biophilia hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that humans largely relied on natural resources, such as food and shelters, in human history, leading humans to evolve a tendency to prefer being close to nature through an emotional connection. If this need and want of connecting to nature is innate and universal, is a community frequently interacting with nature happier? The answer seems to be a yes. We found that national life satisfaction score is positively associated with the proportion of photographs with nature taken during fun activities in a given country.

Despite a stronger connection between humans and nature that contributes to our life satisfaction, continuing degradation of natural environments has placed millions of animal and plant species under risk of extinction. Considering our results, the loss of nature may mean more than losing quantifiable economic benefits; it could also mean losing the background to our fondest memories.

Our paper in Scientific Reports is available here.  

Reference: Kellert, S. R. & Wilson, E. O. The biophilia hypothesis. (Island Press, 1995).


Go to the profile of Chia-chen Chang

Chia-chen Chang

Research Fellow, National University of Singapore

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