Archive for August, 2014

Judging by reactions to one of my recent posts, I am not alone in being intrigued by the power of nature to trigger positive feelings towards others. I referred in the post to research showing that immediately after exposure to beautiful nature in the form of landscape photos and plant arrangements, people displayed heightened sociability and generosity.Sociality

And the story does not end there. Other research shows that nature can benefit relationships not only in the short-term but also in ways that are lasting. It does this by

  • helping us as individuals to embrace social values, such as empathy, thoughtfulness and caring, that have an enduring influence on our behaviour, and
  • creating conditions for healthy community life in the real world.

Values play a key role in human behaviour especially by shaping our long-term aspirations. According to the psychologists Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan, our life goals or aspirations fall into two major categories – extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic aspirations focus our attention on “products” that are not inherently rewarding but serve to secure rewards such as wealth, image and fame from external sources. By contrast, intrinsic aspirations point us towards goals that in themselves satisfy basic psychological needs such as affection, intimacy, personal growth and community membership. Clearly, intrinsic aspirations are more “other-oriented” or “prosocial” than extrinsic ones.

Studies done at the University of Rochester under the leadership of Netta Weinstein found that people who have sensuous, mindful and emotional interaction with natural scenes or living objects display stronger intrinsic aspirations.

This was more likely to be the case in people who

  • had been more deeply immersed in the nature experiences – they gave higher ranked responses to questionnaire items such as, “How completely were all your senses engaged?”, “How much did you feel you were in the places you saw?”,
  • reported a stronger sense of connection with nature as measured by the Connectedness to Nature Scale (If you are interested to see the questions comprising the scale, you will find them towards the end of the article) and
  • were more self-directing or autonomous when expressing themselves and making decisions.

These findings are associated with brief exposures to nature, making it likely that longer lasting effects arise in “real-life” settings, where the presence of nature can be richer and more sustained.

Consistent evidence that  this is the case comes from a series of studies conducted at the Robert Taylor Homes and a similar public housing development in Chicago. The Robert Taylor Homes are architecturally identical buildings (same size, layout, facilities, units, etc) in a line along a five km corridor. Each building is bordered on one side by a highway and railway line and on the opposite side by a municipal thoroughfare.

Originally each building was surrounded by grassland and trees but, over time, many of the green spaces have been asphalted over. This means that some of the buildings are surrounded by asphalt and concrete while others are still set in areas of grass and trees. As residents are allocated to the buildings on a random basis, conditions for a natural experiment have been created.

Robert Taylor Homes barren
Robert Taylor Homes green




Researchers from the University of Chicago have taken advantage of this unique situation to study the effects of nature’s presence on community well-being. Based on their extensive work, they report that living in proximity to greenery is associated with

  • lower rates of aggression
  • lower incidence of property and violent crime
  • greater sense of safety
  • greater use of outdoor space
  • more social networking
  • stronger neighbourhood ties
  • greater resilience in the face of life’s demands.

These are impressive findings, and coupled with what we know about the impact of nature on individual happiness, health and well-being, make a very strong case for bringing nature to our cities, especially to the buildings where we live.

But what are we seeing? – more and more barren  multi-storey apartments rising higher and higher above our suburbs. We may be solving urban housing shortages but at what cost to individual and community well-being. The irony is that, in packing people together physically, we are often making it harder for them to come together socially.

But the story is not all bad. There are enlightened urban planners and architects out there. This is the “vision” for Sydney’s Green Square, for example.Green%20Square_artists%20impression_2

And this is a housing development in Japan, one of the world’s most densely urbanised societies.Sustainable urban living



Where would you rather live – in the Japanese development or in one like this?high density housing


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A recent edition of the Sydney Morning Herald contained an article by Bill Farrelly in which he affirms that God is everywhere in the cosmos and human affairs. The article finishes with this flourish:

Tell me, non-believers, where does our appreciation of beauty come from?

Predictably, several letters to the editor followed. One from Stephen Jackson, summarily dismissed the notion that God has anything to do with beauty:

It is the most basic instinct of all creatures, including mankind, he wrote, to seek the strongest and the fittest, which in turn has evolved over time to be represented by the most beautiful. Beauty enhances survival rates, and it flows into all aspects of our lives to seek beauty, and therefore continuation and strengthening of the species, so our appreciation is little more than evolution at work. No divine intervention there.

But another letter writer, Julian Brown, debunks the evolution explanation on the grounds that humans are flexible, if not fickle, when it comes to feminine beauty (as if beauty in human form is representative of all natural beauty – which it clearly isn’t). He observes that:

Face decoration EuropeWhat we in the West regarded as a beautiful woman 200 years ago (and still is in much of the world) would be thought of as obese today.Face decoration Africa

I must say that I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the dated, simplistic and misguided ideas contained in the body of letters – not surprised because enjoying natural beauty, being one of our commonest pleasures, is easily taken for granted. We expect to encounter beauty in almost all forms of nature, including representations of it in pictures and photographs, and we are rarely disappointed.

But there is a great deal that is extraordinary about this ordinary experience. There is much more to natural beauty than meets the eye (ahem!). Our awareness of beauty is one of the most generous and important gifts of biophilia – our inherent bond with the “wildness” in which our species evolved.

There is some truth to Julian Brown’s assertion that fashions in feminine beauty change, but this is no basis for saying that everything about the perception of beauty is individualistic.

Being a response our brain makes, beauty is indeed “in the eye of the beholder”. The uniqueness of our personalities and life experiences ensures that no two of us will experience beauty in exactly the same way. But this does not mean that everything about beauty and the pleasure it gives is unique to the individual. Our tastes in beauty may differ, but a great deal of what is experienced as beauty in the world is shared. What is beautiful for you or me is likely to be beautiful for others as well.

This is particularly so where natural beauty is concerned. There is plenty of evidence showing that a landscape seen as beautiful by an Australian, for example, will likely be regarded in the same way by someone from the United States of America, Indonesia or Scandinavia. Contrary to what Julian Brown may think, people are more alike than different in judging beauty and ugliness.

Stephen Jackson is on firmer ground in arguing that our appreciation of beauty is “evolution at work” – although there is much more to this idea than is conveyed in the phrase, “the survival of the fittest”. But he is mistaken if he thinks that there is nothing more to be said on the matter.

There remains as much mystery as there is insight about the pathway by which the ability to experience beauty came to be part of our make-up. Evolution is the interplay of chance genetic change and natural selection (the retention of only those changes that enhance survival and reproduction in the prevailing environment). By its very nature, this is a highly unpredictable process with many possible directions and outcomes.

This means that the evolutionary pathway leading to our appreciation of beauty could have diverged at any one of countless points. But against the enormous odds it didn’t. Why it didn’t may be the result of chance, as many scientists would argue. But there are others, including A R Wallace the co-discover with Darwin of the principle of natural selection, John Polkinghorne, priest and former Cambridge professor of plasma physics, and Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, who think that there is more to it. Just what this “more” may be remains a mystery and a matter of speculation.

Adding to the wonder and mystery of the beauty response is its bountifulness. Our brains first evolved to associate beauty with those aspects of the natural environment that are directly or potentially beneficial, such as water, fruit and open woodland, and to regard as ugly objects ,like snakes and putrefying carcasses, that could do us harm. But our ability to perceive beauty now serves us in other, unexpected ways as well – sparking curiosity, inspiring creativity, stimulating empathy and so forth. Clearly, beauty impacts on the human mind in ways that range well beyond the sphere of physical survival and reproduction alone.

In his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt describes humans as being 90% chimp and 10% bee. The point he is making is that we are both individualists (chimps), who have evolved

This chimandbee should be  more chimp and less bee

This chimandbee should be more chimp and less bee

to pursue self-interest, and also colonists (bees) who are adapted to serving the basic interests of the groups we depend on. In other words, we are “groupish” as well as selfish. And, as I explained in my last post, empathy, helpfulness, generosity other prosocial behaviour, is stimulated by natural beauty. So it is that the amazingly rich beauty response has come to serve both the “bee” in us as well as the “chimp”.

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