North Country Voices: Elyssa Twedt
Elyssa Twedt is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department where she teaches Introduction to Psychology, Research Methods, Sensation and Perception, and a seminar on Cognitive Science. She has spent the majority of her life in the south including Florida, Tennessee, and most recently, Virginia, so moving to the North Country in 2015 was a big change. Elyssa gave us some insight on her research as well as some benefits of being outdoors.
What does your research entail?
Broadly, I study spatial cognition, which means I’m interested in how people think about, perceive, and interact with physical spaces. For example, I’ve studied individual differences in navigation strategies and what factors influence perceptions of spatial layout like size and distance. But most related to the interests of Nature Up North readers, I study how physical spaces affect individuals’ well-being, particularly comparing natural and built spaces. One of my projects that most excites me is a longitudinal study with collaborators at the University of Louisville to assess how increasing access to green space (by planting trees in residential neighborhoods) relates to perceived stress and residents’ attitudes toward their neighborhood.
Is there anything that inspired you to pursue this type of research?
My work on the natural environment developed a bit unexpectedly. I was midway through graduate school when my graduate advisor offered me the opportunity to design and teach a course called Art and Aging. It was a community-based learning course in which students paired with members of the community who had dementia. Over the course of the semester, students created digital projects for their partners rooted in the notion that exposure to nature, art, and music positively affects well-being. It was a defining moment in my career and changed the trajectory of my research program.
What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
Building connections with students both in the classroom and the research lab. I feel so energized after teaching a class and look forward to each semester when I meet a new group of students. I’m teaching online classes this semester and I dearly miss the informal conversations with students before and after class, or quick chats in the hallway. But I’ve tried to foster a learning environment where students feel comfortable reaching out to me and with their peers, even over Zoom, and have been pleasantly surprised that we can still form a strong community online.
What do you think are some benefits to spending time outdoors?
Decades of research in environmental psychology tells us that spending time in natural spaces positively affects our health. Exposure to green space can reduce physiological stress, improve mood, and restore depleted attentional resources, compared to built spaces without nature. But you don’t need access to a wilderness area to reap these benefits; city parks, indoor plants, and windows with a view of nature, can all be beneficial.
What’s your favorite outdoor activity and why?
In graduate school I lived near the Blue Ridge Mountains and developed a love for hiking. Many weekends were spent on the trails and now I have the Adirondacks to explore. But my newest favorite outdoor activity is cross-country skiing. I try to ski once a week and it has had a huge benefit on my mental health this semester.
What is one thing you want people who read this to know, particularly about spending time outside?
We are all so busy, exhausted, and overwhelmed this semester. When you have a break, even a small one, step away from your screens and take a short walk around campus. It’s good for your body and mind -- you won’t regret it!
In our North Country Voices series, we talk with local residents whose lives intersect with the environment in unique ways. Do you know someone whose work or hobby gives them an interesting perspective on the natural world? Send their name and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.