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You may be as surprised as I was to learn that there is a connection between the damaging social inequality characteristic of most western societies and people’s concern for nature. Nature is losing out in those societies where the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is widening (as it is in most first-world and some developing countries). Why this is so is still being investigated but research already indicates that personal and social values are involved.

Driven by an obsession with production and consumption, western societies have embraced values that are both socially divisive and environmentally prejudicial. These values are the antithesis of those that underpinned the survival of our species through thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years. These “primal” or “natural” values are those that safeguarded group cohesion and the equitable sharing of food and other essential resources. The successful hunter–gather societies were (and indeed still are) egalitarian rather than hierarchical. Most modern societies comprise hierarchically ordered groups – a few, small and powerful “have” groups at the top of the pile, more, larger and powerless “have-not” groups at the bottom, with other groups of varying affluence and power strung out between.

According to the proponents of “social dominance theory”, the affluent and powerful groups in society seek to preserve their status by manoeuvring politically and otherwise to defend and even increase their affluence and power. Other groups in society are seen as “inferior” and less worthy of the “good life”. We are seeing the consequences of this mind-set and its underlying values in the flowering of far right politics, the rampant distrust of political and corporate power brokers and the growing acceptance of bigotry, racism and discrimination.

When members of a society embrace the social dominance mind-set, concern for others and compassion are casualties.  Hunter-gatherer societies go out of their way to prevent this happening. The Ju/’hoansi (pronounced Dju-kwa-si) people of the Kalahari Desert, for example, are “fiercely egalitarian and uncompromisingly committed to sharing. They regard selfishness with hostility and are strongly opposed to self-promotion and arrogance. As life in Ju/’hoansi communities is very public, the close and constant scrutiny for violation of these values is both possible and effective. The communities also employ elaborate practices to keep egos in check. These practices include downplaying the value of a hunter’s kill, making self-effacing comments, using put-downs and giving back-handed compliments. They have no formal leadership institutions. Men and women enjoy equal decision-making powers, children play largely non-competitive games in mixed age groups, and the elderly, while treated with great affection, are not afforded any special privileges.

All of this discourages the accumulation of wealth and influence, and the over-exploitation of the environment. Unsurprisingly, traditional Ju/’hoansi communities are generally carefree, harmonious and co-operative and have a low incidence of depression, anxiety, hostility and aggression. It should also come as no surprise that the Ju/’hoansi are part of one of most stable, enduring, successful and sustainable societies that has ever existed. Genomic and archaeological evidence indicates that they have been around for at least 150,000 years, having navigated the climatic and other crises that decimated many other human populations.

As well as living compassionately and sustainably with one another, the Ju/’hoansi are masters of living compassionately and sustainably with nature. Their desert habitat in southern Africa is one of the few regions on earth where multiple species of megafauna have survived the coming of humans. The Ju/’hoansi still make use of over 150 plant species and are able to track and trap virtually any animal they choose to. Despite their extraordinary skills, they have only ever worked to meet their immediate needs (typically for about 15 hours per week), have not stored surpluses, and have never harvested more than they could eat in the short term. The Ju/’hoansi clearly do not comply with the assumption of modern economic theory that people always have wants beyond their means (the so-called “problem of scarcity”); the Ju/’hoansi have few wants and ample means to meet them. This has prompted anthropologists to dub them, “the original affluent society”. But theirs is “affluence without abundance”.

Even though Ju/’hoansi society could never be considered a blueprint for our own, we would be stupid not to draw lessons from their way of life and particularly their egalitarianism. While egalitarianism and self-interest can co-exist, the empathic, and indeed compassionate, concern for others is a strong driver of egalitarianism. To value egalitarianism, therefore, is to value empathy and compassion.

In the social dominance mindset, compassion struggles to have a significant influence. As a consequence a concern for others and altruistic behaviour are likely to be muted. And the consequences may not stop there. German researchers recently reported studies showing not only that compassion marches hand in hand with a concern for nature but also that the relationship is causal – increase compassion and nature also benefits.

These findings may help to explain the connection I referred to at the beginning of this post –  between social inequality and a diminished concern for nature.

The strongest evidence we have of this connection comes from a survey of 4500 participants from 25 countries. The survey measured social dominance mindset with a questionnaire that requires respondents to declare the strength of their agreement or disagreement with a series of statements such as, “An ideal society requires some groups to be on top and others to be at the bottom”, and “Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups”. The resulting score indicates the respondent’s “social dominance orientation” or SDO (Follow this link to discover your SDO).Participants in the survey were also asked about their environmental “intentions”, whether, for example, they would sign a petition in support of environmental protection, or try to reduce their carbon footprint by cycling or walking instead of driving.

The survey found a clear association between SDO and environmental intentions – a high SDO made a person less likely to take pro-environment actions. In other words, people who hold altruistic values (or are strong on compassion) and who want to achieve equality in society tend to be more concerned about the environment. Although this is a descriptive finding, the scale of the study from which it comes makes it quite robust.

Perhaps working to make a society more egalitarian could be a way of strengthening its member’s connection to nature as well as their commitment to environmental protection. An idea worth thinking about, I believe.

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The study of nature’s effects on our thoughts, feelings and behaviour is now pushing into very exciting territory – the working human brain.

In a landmark study published in 2010, a team of Korean researchers compared activity in the brains of 28 adults, both males and females, while they were viewing coloured photos of urban and natural scenes. The technology used, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), revealed the parts of the brain that were most active under the two viewing conditions. When urban scenes were being viewed, activity was located in regions of the brain, notably the amygdala, that are associated with stress, anxiety and impulsiveness. In contrast, natural scenes lit up regions, such as the anterior cingulate gyrus and insula, that regulate empathy and altruistic behaviour.

Similar links between nature and human emotions have been demonstrated in a host of psychological studies, but the Korean study provides the kind of “hard” physiological evidence that science prefers. I believe, in fact, that the two markedly different patterns of brain activity described in the study allow us to speak of an “urban brain” and a “nature brain”.

With additional hard evidence from recent work at the University of Edinburgh to hand, my belief is strengthened. Researchers there took advantage of technology that enables brain function to be monitored while a person is in “real” rather than artificial laboratory settings. The technology uses a “skull cap” housing electrodes that detect the brain’s different bands of electromagnetic activity – alpha waves indicating restful andUrban vs rural brain emotiv_epoc_600 relaxed alertness, for example, Beta waves when the brain is busy processing information or Delta waves, which   indicate deep restfulness when they are present, or restless and agitation when they are suppressed.

Information from the electrodes is transmitted to a computer where very smart emotion-detection software interprets it and delivers a moment by moment picture of the person’s state of mind. The emotions measured are excitement, arousal, frustration (as when coping with a challenging task), alertness and meditation.

In one study, the Edinburgh group sent 20 skull-cap fitted students on a walk that took them through both urban and green precincts. In the urban settings, the students’ brains were more busy and alert, whereas walking in green spaces was associated with higher meditation and lower arousal, alertness and frustration. Interestingly, very similar results were obtained when the Edinburgh team repeated the study using photos to simulate exposure to urban and green environments.

Here we have clear evidence that nature is writing a script for our brain. Certainly, life experiences contribute massively to the same script, especially to its intellectual or “overlying” content. But nature makes its impact on the script’s emotional or “underlying” substance, which exercises a powerful influence on virtually every aspect of our learning and thinking as well as our feelings, attitudes and values. In the human evolutionary story, adaptation and behaviour were controlled by the emotions long before the intellect emerged. And the primacy of emotions remains in the makeup of all of us. This is so, despite our (recently evolved) capacity for wisdom, problem solving, rationality, innovation and creativity. We may be creators of complex and sophisticated cultures but nature, via our emotions, holds our intellect and our cultures on a leash.

The most prWilson Kellert The Biophilia hypothesisofound, pervasive and powerful expression of nature’s scripting of our brains is expressed in the emotion-driven disposition we all have to engage with the natural world. Known as biophillia, this disposition arises from a complex mix of emotional, sensory, cognitive and physical components. It is also a fragile disposition that flourishes only when it is nurtured in and through the regular experience of nature.

When nurtured, biophilia delivers an amazing range of benefits (I like to refer to them as gifts) for human well-being. In my book, I refer to these benefits as “gifts”.

The book encourages its readers to claim these gifts and explains how this can be done – even by busy urban dwellers. But I am realist enough to accept that many people genuinely believe that they lack the time, resources, CYW_Cover_finalopportunities or capabilities to become “nature persons”.

The perception that time for nature and leisure time generally are in short supply is widely held. Unfortunately, there is some basis to this view. In his book, Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, Rutger Bregman speaks of increased leisure time as “the forgotten dream”. From the mid-19th century through the first three quarters of the 20th, increased productivity and economic expansion were accompanied by reductions in working hours. But from in the 1980s, “workweek reductions came to a grinding halt”.

Economic growth was translated not into more leisure, but into more stuff. In countries like Australia, Austria, Norway, Spain, and England, the workweek stopped shrinking altogether. In the U.S. it actually grew..

But that’s not all. Even in countries that have seen a reduction in the individual workweek, families have nevertheless become more pressed for time.

The reason for this pressure, Bregman explains, is the feminist revolution, which among other things has seen women throng to the ranks of the paid workforce. This did not mean that men worked less (and helped more in the home), quite the contrary. Couples in the 1950s worked a combined total of five to six days a week; now it’s closer to seven or eight. At the same time parenting has become much more time-intensive. Working mothers in the U.S. spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1950s.

There has been another development as well – work and leisure have become increasingly entangled – largely as a consequence of communication technologies such as the Ipad, laptop and smartphone breaching the boundary between home and work.

All of these trends are increasing the burden of work. What is more, they are fostering the closely related beliefs that “time is money”, that leisure is simply too expensive and that working less would result in a fall in living standards. Bregman’s book exposes the fallacy of these beliefs along with many of the pet tenets of materialist and economic rationalist ideology.

I had to agree with my friend (and super talent), Tory Hughes’s, recent remark to me that many people need to be reassured that it’s OK to set aside time for leisure generally and for leisure in nature in particular.

No amount of work can do for your brain what nature can.

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.

 

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.