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In all of my writings about the life-enriching link between nature and human well-being, I have never talked about the bearing this link has on the quality of family life. In my book, Claim Your Wildness, I advocate engaging in nature activities on a family basis, but nowhere have I actually explained the reason for my enthusiasm.

One reason for this is that research has little to say about the topic. This is very surprising as it is easy to find anecdotal evidence (from people’s informal observations and experiences) indicating that shared nature activities can enhance and strengthen family life in all manner of valuable ways.

Based on my own family’s experience, I feel that a great deal of confidence can be placed in this anecdotal evidence. This is not to suggest for one minute that what nature has done for my family it will do for all families. Families and family life are just too diverse for that to be the case. But there is much that families have in common so that what has happened to one family may be a helpful guide and perhaps inspiration to others in some respects at least.

So with that possibility in mind, I asked my immediate family members (wife, Margaret and adult daughters, Wendy and Susan) to reflect on the impact that shared nature activities, primarily bushwalking and trekking, have had on our life together as a family.

Beginning when our daughters were very young, Margaret and I made Saturday a “family day”, which often involved an outdoor activity of one kind or another. When the girls were older, these outdoor activities morphed into bushwalking which included the occasional backpacking weekend and extended supported walk such as the Milford Track “tramp” in New Zealand. When the girls were in their early teens, we graduated from bushwalking to Himalayan trekking. From then on, nature-based activities formed a core component  of our family’s way-of-life – fostering a healthy lifestyle centred largely on physical activity as well as expanding our pleasures, interests, mental well-being and social connectedness.

Margaret had this to say about this powerfully formative part of our family life:

Bushwalking was an activity that came into our family fortuitously. The girls were not involved with weekend sport, so the four of us were free to go out on Saturdays or weekends. The fact that we enjoyed this family activity set us a bit apart from others, as we were all involved in it at an age that was significant for the girls. It was an incredibly ‘ bonding’ opportunity, even though we may not have realised it at the time – experiencing an activity outside our day-to-day routine. 

We all had to learn about responsibility to the group as well as ourselves. We experienced many challenges, gained confidence, got over differences, cooperated, laughed and gained much knowledge and information. I think we saw each other in a broader, different setting.

The activity itself immersed us in nature to varying degrees on different occasions, but again laid the basis for nurturing our inner spirit as well as appreciating and understanding the beauty of the bush. 

Our first trip to Nepal was an incentive to take a shared ‘walking’ holiday in a very different country. It was, at the time, an unusual thing for a family to do and as we now know, set the background for a wider experience of the world than we could ever have anticipated. It certainly extended our horizons and influenced future choices in life.

Bushwalking introduced us to people beyond our social scene, creating long-lasting relationships and interests. It taught us that we can manage things we didn’t think we were capable of, and about patience, tolerance and adaptability, solitude and silence. Most of all, it provided us with a world of wonder and interconnected life that is to be shared and cherished.

Both Wendy and Susan were certain that the countless hours we spent together in nature contributed very significantly to our togetherness as a family. They provided these specific points in support of their view:

  • Trekking and bushwalking are unhurried activities that give the gift of time for being together as a family – talking and sharing or simply being in one another’s company. They encourage connecting with your companions as much as with the natural environment.
    • They were also activities that brought the family together around a range of shared attitudes and values, including: love and respect for nature, non-materialism, the primacy of experiences over possessions, living simply and openness to the world beyond suburbia.
  • Trekking and bushwalking also provided an abundance of shared experiences – many of them new and challenging (even fearful) but almost always satisfying and rewarding.
    • They are also levelling experiences in the sense that the demands and challenges were usually the same for all four of us; we were engaging with mum and dad as equals rather than as (powerful) parents and (less powerful) children – an unusual and healthy family dynamic that contributed significantly to building a distinctive family identity.
  • Bushwalking and trekking broadened and deepened our family’s social network, especially by giving us friends to share. People tend to be very supportive of one another when sharing the challenges, discoveries and pleasures of outdoor activities. As our family certainly discovered, strong and enduring friendships often result.
    • Highly valued and memorable shared experiences brought our family together by giving us those “Remember when…” moments that can help families move beyond conflict or irritation to affection or admiration. “Yes, X (dad, mum, sister) does sometimes drive me mad but the way they kept me going that day when I thought I would never reach the summit was so good!”
  • Doing demanding activities together as family was phenomenally powerful. The fact that mum and dad were doing something that was new and challenging for them as well as for us provided an extraordinarily valuable model (of considered “envelope pushing” and healthy risk-taking). For this reason preparing for a trek was often as valuable for togetherness and the trek itself.

Wendy offered the additional thought that our family togetherness owes something to a shared vision of life drawn from the kind of experiences of nature we have shared. This is how she describes this vision as it appears to her:

The whole bushwalking experience has been a very strong metaphor for my life.  There are the times you have a level path clearly in front of you, glorious views, a light pack and the opportunity to talk (or not talk) to lovely companions. There are times when you need one of those companions to shoulder your pack for you, take your hand, talk you through etc. There are times when the path is pretty unclear and you can’t see your companions, your pack feels like boulders and you just have to trust your gut that you are heading the right way. There are times when you just plod on, not really focussing but simply putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that it won’t always feel like this. And there are times at summits, along ridges or flying down a hill that you almost feel superhuman – super connected.

 And a final word from the two girls:

We are certainly very grateful that we bushwalked and trekked together as a family. To some extent it made us the family we are – resourceful, forgiving, tolerant of one another, aware of how to encourage (what to say/ not to say) and resilient.

 

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Our cosmic connection

The most exciting and inspiring thing that my long engagement with nature has given me is the realisation that:

Human life is not an individual existence but a cosmic relationship.

There are parts of our brains, notably the insula, that provide us with a sense of individuality, of being a person who is different and distinct from everyone else. That sense underpins our lifelong quest, imperfect as it often is, to be effective persons in the world we inhabit. In short, the sense is essential for our personal surviving and thriving.

There is, of course, a negative side to our sense of uniqueness, lying as it does at the core of the selfish, greedy, power-seeking and loveless behaviour we are all capable of displaying – the behaviour Richard Dawkins writes about in his book, The Selfish Gene. But nature can teach us that there is something quite marvellous and awesome beyond the separateness and individuality (and indeed “littleness”) that tend to dominate our consciousness.

That something is what I have in mind when I speak of a cosmic relationship.

Just think about this:

In their book, Living with the Stars: How the Human Body Is Connected to the Life Cycles of the Earth, the Planets, and the Stars, astrophysicist Karel Schrijver and his wife Iris, a professor of pathology at

Stellar winds

 

Stanford University, explain how everything from which our bodies are made originated in cosmic explosions billions of year ago. Like practically everything else on Earth and in the Universe, we originated in the dust thrown out by a generations of dying stars. That same dust, or more precisely, the atoms and molecules it contained is continually floating around and through us even today. It turns out that Joni Mitchell was right when she sang, We are stardust.

Despite appearances, our body is always changing. It is quite literally not the same body it was years, weeks, or even days ago. Our cells continually die and are replaced by new ones, many at an astonishing pace. Our entire bodies continually rebuild themselves. What we see in a mirror is not fixed but is really a repeating pattern. We are much more a process, a work in progress, than something static and permanent. Our bodies are “happenings” – countless numbers of them – rather than objects.

The raw materials of the rebuilding process are the atoms and molecules comprising the chemicals of life (such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, iron, zinc and sodium), all of which have been recycling through the physical universe and its living inhabitants since the beginning of it all. The air you are breathing at this very moment, for example, could contains oxygen atoms that were created in a dying star and have since passed through three billion year old cyanobacteria, 70 million year old dinosaurs, primeval rain forest trees, a Gondwanaland glacier, an ancient Greek philosopher, William the Conqueror and Adolf Hitler (etc, etc).

This means, quite simply, that you and I are directly connected to the animals and plants around us – and indeed to the soil, water and rocks of the Earth itself. After all, life actually began in the chemical stew created by the outpourings of thermal vents in deep ocean floors. We are also intimately linked to the Sun’s nuclear furnace and to solar wind, to collisions with asteroids and to the cycles of the birth of stars and their deaths in cataclysmic supernovae, and ultimately to the beginning of the universe.

All of that is not just remote history but is part of us now; our human body is inseparable from the natural world around us and intertwined with the history of the universe.

It is one thing to take this amazing thought on board intellectually but quite another to “feel” this connectedness with all things in the cosmos – to experience our cosmic relationship emotionally and spiritually.

Many, including me have had this experience in encounters with the grandness, wonder and

Cosmic relationship photo john-hyde

Photo by John Hyde

magnificence of nature – typically in a landscape or scenic feature but elsewhere in nature as well, including the behaviour of animals in their natural settings.

 

Such experiences transform our consciousness by overwhelming us with beauty, wonder and awe so that we are lost to ourselves but deeply aware of the world around us. More than that, any sense of separateness from that world dissolves allowing us to feel a connection with something bigger than ourselves, even transcendent. We are no longer simply “in” nature but “of” it – not only physically but also psychologically and spiritually. Such experiences have been aptly called “high moments” to convey something of the uplifting, expanding, restorative and inspiring nature of their impact on the human mind.

Have you had a high moment lately?

 

This was the view from the tent my wife and I shared under the shadow of Mt Harmakh in Kashmir back when it was possible to travel safely in that now troubled region.

The water surging along the nullah right at our door made a constant low roar but we were completely untroubled by it. In fact, the sound was pleasantly soothing by day and soporific by night.

Something of this long-ago experience came back to me when I clicked on this link, got rid of the ad and played the video with my eyes closed. Try it for yourself and then decide what you think about this statement:

“When you listen to the tranquil sounds of nature and the great outdoors, you feel more relaxed.”

Most people would likely take that statement to be true, primarily because it makes sense intuitively. It may also be a “reality” that many have actually experienced.

But is it actually true? Can it be demonstrated scientifically? It seems likely that the answer to both questions will turn out to be, “Yes”. This is certainly the direction in which research evidence is pointing.

Some of this evidence comes from experimental studies in which subjects who had been stressed (by undertaking a difficult mental arithmetic task, for example) were then exposed to different auditory conditions including natural sounds such as birdsong, moving water and soft wind. The consistent message from these studies is that natural sounds are more effective in reducing the signs, symptoms and negative feelings of stress.

Other studies have shown that natural sounds are more effective than alternatives in reducing stress during surgical procedures.

Natural sounds may also hold the key to masking the distracting noise of conversation in open-plan office settings. Workers were found to perform better on a task requiring sustained attention when they were exposed to the sound of a mountain stream rather than a soundscape of artificial “white noise” and another of no masking noise at all. The sound of the stream also elicited more positive feelings about the work environment. By a very decisive margin, workers preferred the mountain stream sound to the standard white noise signal.

In a very recent study, researchers from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School investigated the effect of natural sounds on the workings of the brain. They did this by performing brain scans on subjects listening to artificial and natural soundscapes. Natural sounds were found to activate the network in the brain associated with the mind-wandering and reflective thinking that is experienced in moments of tranquillity (the default mode network). The study also found evidence that natural sound triggered the anti-stress, calming “rest-and-digest” system of the body. Interestingly, the amount of change in nervous system activity was dependent on the participants’ baseline state. Individuals who showed evidence of the greatest stress before starting the experiment showed the greatest bodily relaxation when listening to natural sounds,

Given the consistency of the evidence, it is fairly safe to assume that the human brain has evolved to find at least some natural sounds calming. According to evolutionary theory, this would have happened because sounds such as the gurgle of running water, the murmur of wind in trees, the song of birds and the roar of surf helped our ancestors identify safe, secure and supportive habitats. These were, for our ancestors, sounds of connectedness, affinity, intimacy and belonging – not consciously registered as such perhaps but deeply affecting none-the-less.Sounds roar of surf

And this is exactly the way these same sounds work for us – as subliminal reminders of our embeddedness in the natural world. They are the sounds of “home”.

So, as we hear and savour natural sounds and benefit from their soothing and restorative effects, let us also dwell on the awesome thought that what we are experiencing arises directly from our complete and timeless oneness with the whole of nature

 

 

What is it about rock?

I am indebted to my bushwalking friend, Ross Norrie, for these magnificent photos.

Both were taken on the “roof of Australia”, the Main Range of the Snowy Mountains where Mt. Kosciuszko is located.

It is intriguing that we find such barren jumbles of rocks singularly attractive. The rocks in the photos are not part of universally loved “rocky” landscape features such as cliffs, canyons, mountain ridges and peaks. This means that they are not getting their appeal by way of association.  No – Ross’ photos elicit an emotional and aesthetic response to rock as rock and not rock as part of anything else.

What are we to make of this response? Is it telling us something important about rock, and indeed about ourselves?

I hope I can convince you that it is.

We know that rocks or stones have served symbolic and religious purposes from pre-historic times. In a great many of the world’s cultures, highly revered stones or stone monuments have spiritual or religious significance and form integral parts of what can be described as “sacred landscapes”.

Generally speaking, sacred features in the landscape come into being when humans acknowledge some form of spiritual presence or property. Even before there is any awareness or acknowledgment of a place’s sacredness, simply being in the place can elicit quite powerful emotions including awe and fear. I can recall, for example, an experience of unexpectedly coming upon a group of large granite tors in a relatively remote bushland clearing and immediately feeling a mixture of excitement and awe. Before I could violate the place by taking photos, my companion identified the place as an Aboriginal sacred site – rightly as we later learned.

Almost certainly, the behaviour we are talking about is universal – displayed by people regardless of geographic location, culture or historical time.

While science has not demonstrated this directly, the indirect evidence is compelling, especially evidence from what we know about the human brain’s capacity to obtain and use sensory information from the natural environment.

We humans possess visual prowess that is unsurpassed as far as detecting and making sense of patterns and shapes are concerned. Working together in bewilderingly complex ways, our eyes and brains help us to make sense of the world by enabling us to discover meaningful patterns with extraordinary efficiency, fidelity and flexibility.

Our pattern-detecting ability is so developed that we are able to see meaningful images where objectively (or mathematically) there are none – in, for example, many naturally occurring random configurations such as clouds, cracks in the ground, the surface of the Moon and, yes, rocks. As a case in point, it is not hard to guess what this rock in The Royal National Park south of Sydney is called.

The “creative” perception that enables you to see why “Eagle Rock” is so called is known as pareidolia.

Interestingly, when we are experiencing pareidolia, the activity in our brain is the same as when shapes and patterns in the form of actual objects are being observed.

The merest hint of a pattern or shape can be enough for the human brain to “see” something meaningful. This is because evolution has endowed us with brains that are fine-tuned to detect the naturally occurring patterns of nature. These patterns are familiar to all us:

  • Symmetry – one shape balanced by its inverse around an axis
  • Fractals
  • Spirals
  • Meanders – repeated flowing curves
  • Waves – in water and sand
  • Bubbles – as in froth or foam
  • Tessellations
  • Cracks
  • Spots and stripes

Because it is wired to detect patterns, our brain does so “fluently” and with minimum effort. Associated with the fluency is pleasure. When our brain is doing something it is meant to do, feel-good chemicals including dopamine are discharged, bringing the emotions of pleasure and reward into play. As a result, we find looking at natural patterns and the shapes they form an attractive and agreeable thing to do.

If they are anything, rocks are the repository of patterns – wonderful and varied patterns. That, surely,  is why we like them. Look again at Ross’ photos. See the repetition of flowing curves in the first and the repeated angular as well as the flowing lines in the second. And see in both the hint of fractal shapes along the jagged edges of the formations. There is also symmetry to be enjoyed in both, along with the emphatic repetition of cracks and spherical forms.

And if we were able to look more closely at the surfaces of Ross’ rocks, we might find more attractive patterns there – formed, for example, by different coloured crystals and chemicals in the rock or by colonising lichens and mosses.

To the question, What is it about rocks?, one answer is clear – aesthetic patterns and shapes.

Go rock!

The renowned nature photographer and author, Joel Sartore,  is on a mission. He has set out to photograph every species of animal currently housed in the world’s zoos. With portraits of over 6000 species already taken, he is halfway towards completing his project, which he calls Photo Ark. His quest is to create a photo archive of global diversity with the hope that his portraits will stir in people a deep empathy with animals and an active desire to protect them from extinction. He is undertaking the project against the background of the calamitous species loss almost everywhere on Earth. It has been estimated that unless massive remedial action is taken, half the animal species currently inhabiting the planet will be gone by the end of the century.

Sartore’s portraits are both beautiful and moving. He tries to take his shots with the animal looking

A photo from Photo Ark

directly into the lens, so creating the impression that the animal is making eye contact and forming a connection with the viewer.

While we are all genetically programmed to pay attention to animals, we are more attracted to, and more empathic with, species that share similar features and/or behaviours to ourselves. This is sometimes referred to as the “similarity principle”.

Regardless of the enormous range of size, shape and other differences that separate our species from others, the main features of the human face (especially the eyes) have their counterparts in mammals, birds and other members of the animal kingdom. By focussing on the faces of his animal subjects, Sartore is making clever (but entirely appropriate) use of the similarity principle.

There is something of a tragic irony in the fact that we humans evolved to live with other animals and to share our ancestral forest and grassland habitats with them. There was nothing in this arrangement that required the extinction of species. The web of life is intended to remain intact – not to have great holes in it.

The evidence that our brain has an “animal bias” is irrefutable. We are hard-wired to notice animals and to pay attention to them involuntarily. When people are shown pictures of animals, a specific part of the amygdala – a brain structure that is central to pleasure, pain, fear and reward – reacts almost instantly. This may explain why we very rapidly detect animals in nature scenes and why we are more sensitive to changes in the movement and positioning of animals than we are to other objects, including objects as familiar as vehicles.

In infants, the animal bias shows up in a number of ways including more animation, vocal activity and social interaction when they are engaged with animals rather than toys.

None of this should be surprising as humans have been in the company of animals for two million years or more. Instantaneously obtaining and processing information about an animal’s intent was obviously very important for not becoming prey or being bitten, scratched, thumped or trampled. Not only that, the same ability could be turned to using animals as food and as indicators of where water, edible plants and other food sources might be located. Our ancestors were well served by their genetic disposition to pay close attention to animals.

About 14,000 years ago, these same ancestors found another use for animals, particularly for dogs. Bonding with dogs proved to very beneficial. Apart from providing protection and helping with hunting and shepherding, dogs proved to be great companions and promotors of mental health. Interacting with a friendly dog increases the production of oxytocin, a powerful “feel-good” hormone. A surge of oxytocin facilitates social bonding, co-operation, caring and empathy. It also decreases stress, depresses fear and enhances a sense of security, trust and pleasure. Not surprisingly the presence of a dog has been found to improve the effectiveness of therapeutic counselling (the “dog in the room” phenomenon).

Similar benefits come from interactions with cats and indeed other pets including horses. And it is almost certain that the “oxytocin response” is triggered, to some degree at least, in most of our benign encounters with non-domestic animals.

It is also the case that dogs get something of the oxytocin lift from an engagement with humans (maybe cats and other pets do as well).

Not a great deal is known about the specific animal attributes that attract our attention and elicit the oxytocin response. Common experience suggests that beauty of form, colour and movement is an obvious candidate. Superiority to humans in size, strength and physical skill is another. One attribute that has received some research attention is the “cuteness” factor.

We tend to prefer animals that we perceive as “cute”, an attribute we usually associate with babies, infants and young children. In scientific terms, cuteness is thought to be bound up with the “baby schema”, a set of features including large head, round face, high forehead, large eyes and small nose and mouth. In combination, these features automatically trigger nurturing, care-giving and empathic behaviour in both adults and children. Animals displaying these features, can look forward to being patted and cuddled on a regular basis.

Even though I have never seen one in the wild, I have a special place in my heart for snow leopards. These magnificent animals thrive in some of the most hostile landscapes on earth. I am fascinated by their beauty and awed by their capacity to survive. Needless to say, I was delighted when a recent blog post by Josh Gosh contained this link to a stunning video that features wonderful images of snow leopards. Take time to view it; you won’t be disappointed.

 

I have just had the great good fortune to view Jennifer Peedom’s documentary film, Mountain.

A product of her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane (script), Enan Ozturk (cinematography) and Richard Tongnetti leading the Australian Chamber Orchestra (music), Mountain is a feast for the eyes and ears. It is the most sensuously sumptuous film I have ever viewed. Not to be missed!!

Macfarlane drew the deeply insightful and poetic script from his bestselling book, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. Although written very much from a mountaineer’s perspective, the book is also about the human experience of mountains more generally.

Unlike Macfarlane, I have not had the climber’s extreme engagement with mountains, but I have trekked around them, across them and even into the glacial hearts of some. So I know first-hand the fascination about which he writes and can relate totally to his well-informed analysis of that fascination.

The label, “mountain”, is attached to all sorts of elevated landforms, some more hills than mountains.

Genuine mountains are characterised not just by height but also by the way ecosystems vary in layers across their vertical expanse (vertical or altitudinal zonation). To ascend a mountain is to pass from relatively warm forests to cooler grasslands and heaths, to cold, vegetation-free rock and scree and then, in many instances, to regions of permanent ice and snow.

Even the “baby” mountains making up the Australian Alps display something of this zonation.

That said, it is important to accept that our experience of mountains has to do more with how we perceive them rather than the facts of their geology, climatic variation and ecology.

As Macfarlane writes, What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans – a mountain of the mind.

In his book, Macfarlane plots how the imagining of mountains has changed over time. In so doing, he draws our attention to the rich and unique impact that mountains have on the human mind and spirit.

These excerpts from Mountains of the Mind convey something of the extent and power of that impact.

  • Ultimately and most importantly, mountains quicken our sense of wonder. The true blessing of mountains is not that they provide a challenge or a contest, something to be overcome and dominated (although this is how many people have approached them). It is that they offer something gentler and infinitely more powerful: they make us ready to credit marvels – whether it is the dark swirls that water makes beneath a plate of ice, or the feel of the soft pelts of moss that form on the lee side of boulders and trees.

Mountains return to us the priceless capacity for wonder which can so insensibly be leached away by modern existence and they urge us to apply that wonder to our own everyday lives.

  •  By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.

At bottom, mountains like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to   lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans.

  • Mountains also reshape our understandings of ourselves, of our interior landscapes. The remoteness of the mountain world – its harshness and its beauties – can provide us with a valuable perspective down on to the most familiar and best-charted regions of our lives. It can subtly reorient us and readjust the points from which we can take out bearings. In their vastness and in their intimacy, mountains stretch out the individual mind and compress it simultaneously: they make it aware of its own immeasurable acreage and reach out, at the same time, of its own smallness.

 

  • Nowhere but in the mountains do you become aware of the incorrigible plurality of light, of its ability to alter its texture rapidly and completely.

The sky and the air, too, were found to be magnificently different in the mountains. At altitude, on a clear day, the sky was no longer the flat ceiling of the lowlands, but an opulent cobalt ocean, so sensuously deep  that some travellers felt themselves falling up into it.

  •  In the mountainous world things behave in odd and unexpected ways. Time, too, bends and alters. In the face of the geological time-scales on display, your mind releases its normal grip on time. Your interest and awareness of the world beyond the mountain falls away and is replaced with a much more immediate hierarchy of needs: warmth, food, direction, shelter, survival.

It is little wonder that people are still flocking to mountains in their millions, most to savour rather than climb them. As a friend of mine recently discovered, Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California is crawling with sightseers during the summer season. A comparable influx of visitors occurs in iconic mountain locations and resorts in other countries including Nepal, India, Switzerland and Canada.

Is my friend’s experience telling us that people’s love of nature is well and strong and that the evidence pointing to a declining involvement with nature in many Western countries is, in fact, misleading?

Regrettably it doesn’t – in part, because the evidence is from a range of reliable studies including large-scale surveys, and also in part, because the evidence can be linked to (and partially explained by) broader changes in lifestyle and recreational preferences within Western societies.

And then there is the fact that the allure of mountains, especially the awesomeness of them, is like the Sirens’ call – very hard to resist even by those who are not otherwise drawn to nature. People will still be visiting mountains, even when other forms of nature experiences have little or no part in their lives.

Nevertheless, we can always hope that people will come away from their mountain visit with a new, restored or re-vitalised love of nature.

We modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been around for much longer than was previously thought – 100,000 years longer in fact.

An international team of scientists recently reported the discovery in Morocco of human remains dating back 300,000 years. Previous fossil records have put the emergence of Homo sapiens in East Africa to about 200,000 years ago. It now seems probable that our species emerged not in a single East African “Garden of Eden” but in a number of places across eastern and northern Africa.

Three hundred thousand years ago, northern Africa was not the dry and arid land it is today. Because of a wetter climate, it was clothed in woodlands, forests and grasslands similar to those known to have existed in East Africa 100,000 years later.

These savannah-like environments are thought to be the ones in which modern humans evolved and to which, as a consequence, our brains and bodies are most comprehensively and efficiently adapted. In other words, we are most at home in natural environments. The savannah is for our species the Environment of Evolutionary “Adaptedness” or EEA. Each living species has its particular EEA and the total or even partial loss of the EEA means extinction unless the species can adapt to any significant environmental changes.

Compared with our ancestors of 300,000 years ago, we 21st century humans are living in very different environments.  For the more than 50 per cent of us living in towns and cities, the most obvious difference has to do with geometry. Ours is mainly a world of smooth lines, regular shapes, simplicity of form and symmetry. It is principally a rectilinear world that our forebears could never have imagined.

Theirs, in contrast, was largely a world of raggedness, irregularity, complexity and apparent chaos. The familiar Euclidian geometry that can be used to describe urban environment is much less applicable to the natural world. For that world a very different geometry – fractal geometry – is also required.

Fractals are created by patterns that recur on finer and finer scales meaning that a fractal object looks very similar whether it is viewed from some distance away, close up or anywhere in between.

Fractals are readily observed in tree branches like the ones shown in the accompanying figure (which originally appeared in a research article). The red rectangles show the same tangle of branches from three different distances. While the three images are not identical, they are remarkable similar.

A better gauge of the “self-similarity” of the three views is obtained using an analytical procedure that produces a measurement called a “D”. A smooth line, which has no fractal structure, has a D value of 1 while a completely filled space, which also has no fractal structure, has a D value of 2. Once a line begins to repeat itself, it starts to occupy space and its D value falls between 1 and 2. The D value of the three images of the branching limb is the same even though the patterns formed by the branches vary slightly.

As more fine detail is added to a fractal mix, more of the space is filled and the value of D moves closer to 2, as a photo which I received recently illustrates very nicely.

D values for some common natural features are:

Coastlines                           1.05 – 1.52clouds

Woody plants and trees  1.28 – 1.90

Waves                                 1.30

Clouds                                 1.30 – 1.33

Snowflakes                        1.70

 

I have risked boring you to sobs with this technical excursion into fractals because I want to share with you some recent discoveries that illustrate how wondrously our brains have been shaped by nature.

The ability to see and make sense of fractal objects in nature was central to the survival of our species. Without it, the complexity of nature would have been mentally (and emotionally) overwhelming. But millions of years of evolution produced a brain that could “decode” nature’s fractal language and extract the information needed to solve the problems of survival and reproduction.

Because the move by modern humans from natural to urban habitats started only a matter of a few thousand years ago, we remain creatures of the wild in terms of evolutionary development. As a consequence, the ability to respond to fractal objects endures as part of our make-up.

Studies of this response have provided several arresting findings:

  • Fractal objects appeal to our senses and many elicit aesthetic pleasure (or the “beauty buzz”). Such was the genius of the artist, Jackson Pollock, that he was able to create fractal masterpieces. Inspired by the fractal patterns he observed from the verandah of his house on Long Island, New York State (The house in the top image was his), he developed his drip and scatter painting technique to capture what he saw. Typically, he would proceed by creating relatively dense clusters of lines joined by longer sweeping lines. Then, often after a period of days, he would return and add finer and finer details. D analyses have confirmed that the images produced in this way are indeed fractal in nature. While Pollock’s earlier works had low D values (e.g. 1.3), his later works, like the one shown here, had higher values (in the order of 1.7 – 1.9). This is interesting because studies have shown that fractal objects in the mid-range of D values are generally found to be most attractive (the “Goldilocks” factor again). Perhaps the extra “challenge” of Pollock’s later paintings added to their artistic appeal.
  • There is an extraordinary parallelism between fractal forms in nature and the way the human eye moves when observing them. Maps of these eye movements also turn out to be fractal in structure. Why this is so is still a matter of speculation but it may have something to do with the information gathering efficiency of scanning patterns that move from larger to smaller features (Just as Pollock did when painting). Interestingly, animal grazing patterns sometimes take on the same whole-to-part, fractal organization.
  • The brain is both relaxed and busy when observing fractals. It is thought that when our brain is doing things it is wired to do, less effort and energy are involved. The concept of “fluency” is often used to describe non-demanding mental processing of this kind. This has led some researchers to predict that when our brain is processing fractals, the visual receiving and interpreting parts of our brain will be active while the parts of the brain to do with planning, executive control and concentrating will be in a more “free-wheeling”, relaxed mode. Studies using a physiological measure of stress and brain monitoring procedures report findings squarely supporting this prediction.

These are particularly intriguing discoveries in my view because they testify to the exquisite detail, subtlety, economy and efficiency with which evolutionary mechanisms have matched the human brain to the natural world. They also serve as a powerful reminder that if we are fully to understand ourselves and our behaviour, we need to understand the full scope and depth of nature’s imprint on the functioning of our brain. And we are not simply talking about “survival” behaviour. Just as Pollock’s art demonstrates, this imprint is to be found in the most sophisticated forms of human cultural, social and ethical behaviour. We cannot ignore the legacy of our species’ sojourn in nature – in its EEA – nor should we want to. It is a legacy to be embraced wholeheartedly because, as I argue in my book, it is a precious legacy.