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Archive for July, 2014

The news stories of the last week or so from the Ukraine, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere remind us that nothingBeauty and kindness re-sized in this world is as wantonly divisive, destructive and tragic as unleashed human self-interest.

As I tried to come to terms with the horror and obscenity of it all, I drew solace of sorts from an unexpected source – a recent research report in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

The report concludes with these comforting remarks:

Human civilization has had a profound and ancient relationship with the natural world. In this research, we asked the question, does nature help promote the greater good? Our studies reveal that it does.

The studies were conducted by five psychologists led by Jai Wei Zhang from the University of California, Berkeley. Zhang and his colleagues were interested specifically in the effects of natural beauty on kindness, empathy and other positive social behaviour (or what psychologists call “prosociality”).

They noted that several contemporary philosophers have positively linked beauty and prosociality. Simone Weil and Elaine Scarry, for example, claim that people experience a “de-centring” of the self when viewing something beautiful. In a similar vein, Iris Murdoch said that beauty leads to what she called “unselfing”, the process of transcending self-interest to become more generous and kind.

These views line up very nicely with recent neurological findings indicating that encounters with beauty activate brain regions associated with empathy, openness and other social responses.

Zhang and co reasoned that if beauty can shift perspectives away from the self and towards others, then the greater the beauty the more the shift. They undertook their research to test this idea and to determine whether or not any such shift was affected by individual differences in people’s openness to natural beauty. They were able to measure such differences using a questionnaire (the Engagement with Beauty Scale) that discloses how much a person is oriented towards, and aroused by, various forms of beauty, including natural beauty.

To measure prosociality the researchers used questionnaires covering

  • agreeableness (being considerate, compassionate, kind, helpful, trusting, conciliatory, well-tempered, etc)
  • perspective taking (able to understand another’s point-of-view)
  • empathic concern (having feelings of warmth and compassion towards others, especially those who are vulnerable in some way)

They were also able to assess the generosity aspect of prosociality using “games” (Dictator and the Trust Game) that measure a person’s willingness to share and to display trust.

But not content with paper-and pencil measures of prosociality, the researchers created a scenario that enabled “real-life” kindness and generosity to be observed and assessed (about which there is more below).

A major challenge for the researchers was to devise materials that would evoke two broad subjective responses to natural beauty – “more beautiful” and “less beautiful”. This involved extensive trialling and assessment of images to produce two slide presentations, each of 10 images. The top pictures in the pairs below are examples of the “more beautiful” images and the lower ones the “less beautiful”.

Zhang's study Sample pictures

The researchers took steps to ensure that the pairs of pictures were comparable in terms of the objective dimensions of beauty such as symmetry, proportion and complexity.

For the last of the four studies in their project, the researchers used nursery plants (also selected after an extensive trialling process) rather than images to create the conditions of “more” and “less beautiful”. Participants in this final study were randomly allocated to a room where they were seated in clear view of either an arrangement of the “more beautiful” plants or one made from the “less beautiful”.

After they had completed a questionnaire measuring their current level of positive emotion, the participants were asked to volunteer for a simple altruistic task – making origami cranes to be sent as greetings to victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The number of cranes folded served as a measure of helping.

So what did this well planned and executed project discover? Three things basically:

  • participants who were more open to the beauty of nature were also more open to other people
  • exposure to more (rather than less) beautiful images of nature led participants to be more generous and trusting
  • exposure to more (rather than less) beautiful plants in a laboratory room led people to exhibit increased helping behaviour.

The project also found that

  • the more sensitive to natural beauty people were the more likely it was that exposure to beautiful nature would increase their prosocial behaviour, and
  • beautiful nature makes people more prosocial by stimulating their feel-good emotions.

The take-away message from the report is that natural beauty is a rich source of goodness for the human mind and soul. As Rachel Carson, one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, said, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts”. John Muir, the 19th century pioneer conservationist, naturalist and writer was absolutely right when he declared, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul”.

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Judging by the response to my previous post about campfires, many of us have happy memories of times spent around an outdoor fire. This set me thinking about campfire activities – apart from gazing and yarning –  that I have enjoyed.SONY DSC

When sharing a fire with people I am still getting to know, I sometimes invite several of the folk to tell about a memorable incident from their childhood. This is a gentle and often very entertaining way of giving people the opportunity to share a little about themselves.

Another “getting-to-know-you activity” involves having each person say three things about themselves, two of the statements must be true but the other false. The listeners have to guess which statement is the lie.

If you are into campfire games, these are oldies but goodies:

Whispers: One person makes up a message of 10-15 words and whispers it to the person next to them who whispers it to their neighbour and so on around the circle. The last person reports the message which inevitably and often hilariously bears little relation to the original.

Twenty questions: One person thinks of an object associated with the campfire or its setting. The others have a total of 20 questions to discover what the object is. The person in the know must not lie but answer “yes”, “no” or, if appropriate, “maybe”. If the questioners can’t work out what the object is after the 20 questions, the answerer has another turn. Anyone saying what the object is before the 20 questions are asked, gets to be the answerer.

Terrible Tale: Have someone begin a story by saying, “There once was an emu (wombat, frog or whatever animal they choose) who…” finishing the sentence however they wish, e.g., “There once was a wombat who forgot where his burrow was”. The story starter then points to another person who continues the story with a sentence beginning, “Fortunately…”, e.g., “Fortunately he found another burrow that looked OK”. The second person points to a third who continues the story with a sentence starting, “Unfortunately…”, e.g., “Unfortunately, the burrow was actually a drainage pipe”. Repeat the sequence, keeping the story going for as long as you like.

And if toasting marshmallows is your thing:

add a little lustre to the old custom by having some squarish biscuits on hand. Place a piece of chocolate from a variety that comes in a thin form on one of the squares. Add the toasted marshmallow and put a second biscuit square on top. In the USA, this decadent concoction is called a “s’more” – short for “Some more”!Smores2

Have you any campfire fun ideas? If so, please share them by dropping them into a comment here or (preferably) on my Claim Your Wildness Facebook page.

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I heard recently of a rather telling incident at a family barbecue. Some visiting school-age children displayed amazement at the sight of the fire. The reason, it seemed, was that this was the first open fire they had seen. I hope that this does not turn out to be a one-off experience for these children, rather that they will have many further opportunities to enjoy the pleasure and comfort of an outdoor fire, especially a campfire.

A campfire – or most open fires for that matter – has a unique appeal. It is easy to be mesmerised by a campfire’s dancing colours – yellow, orange, red, blue, violet and even green at times;800px-Colored_campfire and by its ever changing character – from energetically youthful flames to glowing and mellowing coals. And then there is the fun of tending the fire – adding a stick or two to fading coals and watching with satisfaction as flames return.

Gazing at the dancing flames or the glowing coals of a campfire is a special delight. For me, it is one of the highlights of a bushwalk, a reward for a day well spent. With my tent up, sleeping gear organised, the meal cooked, eaten and enjoyed, and the washing up done, I am ready to fall under the campfire’s spell.

While the fire is warming my body, its yellow-red glow is quietly increasing the level of melatonin in my brain and readying me for sleep. Drowsiness descends and I become increasingly contemplative as my mind switches to free-wheeling and reverie mode. A campfire enjoyed alone is one thing, but a campfire shared is something else again. A communal fire has a remarkable socialising power.People around camp-fire As well as providing an attractive physical space of warmth and light, it also creates a space for reflection and conversation. As notable Canadian outdoor skills teacher, Kevin Callan, says

Campfires do give us a great sense of community. Whether there are two or ten people circling it, the ones involved in this simple act are able to connect and discuss issues of the world more easily than at a coffee shop or sitting on a bar stool back home.

Apart from bringing people together, a campfire encourages conversation because it is a “primal” experience. In a bush or forest setting especially, it takes us back psychologically (at least part way) to the natural world of our ancestors. The communal fire was an integral and key part of that world. This is probably why we innately associate a shared fire with kinship and security. Around a campfire we feel that little bit more “at home” with others. Rapport seems to come easier – a fact that has not been lost on organisers of outdoor therapy and rehabilitation programs.

Where children are concerned, campfires are winners. Lighting and tending a fire are usually tasks they embrace with enormous pleasure and enthusiasm. Add some marshmallow toasting or chocolate banana cooking and their joy is complete.

And there are ways of giving children and ourselves campfire experiences without having to be on an actual camp. There may be suitable spots (i.e., with a built or designated fireplace) near you where a couple of hours can be spent having a “picnic tea” plus campfire, for example. A call to local government offices in your region might turn up sites as well as guidance concerning regulations and restrictions that might apply. You can even consider having campfires in your own back garden or on your own patio. All you need is a suitable container to serve as a fire-bowl. An old wok would serve the purpose, for example.Small fire dish You will find directions for making a simple fire-bowl using a planter box at this website. A fire-pit or bowl could always be built as a more substantial and attractive landscape features. Here are a couple of examples to inspire you. Fire-Pit-and-Outdoor-Fireplace-Ideas  Fire pit small I think I should add “have an outdoor fireplace” to the list of easy ways for connecting with nature that I provided in a previous post (Getting together with nature is “dead easy”).

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