Archive for September, 2014

My first great grandchild, Zoe Margaret, arrived three weeks ago.Sept 23

Her arrival prompted me to reflect on the world that will be hers – not so much about the world in general but more about the part I hope the nature might play in her life and, indeed, in the lives of those around her.

My dream is that hers will be a world where


  • the hearts and minds of everyone are fully open and responsive to nature and everyone feels “at one” with the natural worldunity with nature



  • everyone, regardless of where they live, has easy access to nature

Sitting in a park 2





  • everyone involved in creating environments where people live, work and play has got the message that rich contact with nature is essential for human health and well-being

bio-porch jpgurban sprawl with greenery





  • all children play regularly and freely in nature and their minds and bodies are constantly being nurtured through “nature play”

Object play

  • a primary goal of school education is to immerse every child in nature and to foster in them a passion for the study and protection of the natural world

kid studying nature

  • nature’s power to comfort, heal, restore and rehabilitate is being fully utilized in health care


nature in hospitals

nature in hospitals 2





and in the amelioration of social disadvantage and dysfunction


Outdoor therapy for teens

  • nature continues to be a rich source of inspiration for writers, artists and composers

art inspired by anture 2_artist_img_5159







  • people everywhere are committed to sustainable living, the conservation of nature and the protection of the planet


In short, I want a world where Zoe can claim her wildness and benefit from it to the fullest possible extent.









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These are some of the women of Samunnat, an NGO in Birtamod, Nepal, that is doing exemplary front-line2013-11-19 16.44.03 work in the war against domestic oppression, violence and sexual exploitation. The stories behind many of the smiles are heart wrenching but these women are no longer victims. With the support of Samunnat, they are finding safety, liberation, autonomy, self-respect, confidence and hope. In Nepali, “samunnat” means “flourishing” and this is surely the goal of these courageous and inspiring women.

Flourishing refers to the experience of life going well. It is a combination of feeling good and living in a way that is satisfying, fulfilling and meaningful. As high level mental wellbeing, flourishing is the optimal state of mental health.

There is abundant evidence that flourishing is good for individuals and for society. Numerous studies have linked high levels of well-being to learning efficiency, creativity, productivity, good relationships, altruism, good health and longer life expectancy.

Felicia Huppert, who has been studying well-being for 20 years, says that it has the following features:

  • Positive emotions: feeling happiness, joy, pleasure
  • Engagement: taking an interest in your work and activities
  • Relationships: having people in your life that you care for and who care about you
  • Meaning and purpose: feeling that what you do in life is valuable and worthwhile
  • Accomplishment: feeling that what you do gives you a sense of accomplishment and makes you feel competent
  • Emotional stability: feeling calm and peaceful
  • Optimism: feeling positive about your life and your future
  • Resilience: being able to bounce back in the face of adversity
  • Self-esteem: feeling positive about yourself
  • Vitality: feeling energetic

She has found that positive well-being is much more than the absence of mental illness. It is a distinct condition that is desirable not only for itself but also because of its contribution to physical health – by way of enhanced immune functioning especially.

Not surprisingly, psychologists and others have plenty of sound advice for attaining high level well-being. A common theme is the importance of nurturing a positive outlook on life. But overlooked in much of this advice is the recommendation to connect with nature. This is a serious oversight especially in the light of what we are learning about the effect that nature has on the human brain.

I apologise for the quality of these images but they are good enough to illustrate a fascinating point.Urban and nature brain The images show what was revealed by brain scans taken under two conditions – first when people were viewing photos of nature (top image) and then when they were looking at photos of urban scenes (bottom image). The coloured areas are the ones that came to life under the different conditions. The images cover just one thin horizontal slice of the brain. In the research report where I found these images there were over a dozen other slices represented in the same way. But the images of each slice paint the same picture. The areas of the brain fired up by nature photos are different from those activated by urban scenes.

The differences are so marked that we can talk reasonably of an “urban brain” and a “nature brain”. And the way these differences play out in our thoughts and feelings is even more interesting. Viewing urban scenes has a mainly a negative impact while nature images stir positive emotions and ways of thinking. More specifically, urban scenes ramp up activity in brain centres, notably the amygdala (marked in the bottom diagram), that are associated with feelings of fear, anxiety and avoidance and also with impulsivity (making snap judgements) and anger. Overactivity in these centres impairs or inhibits decision making, reflective thinking and altruistic behaviour. It also increases our sensitivity to threats and unpleasantness and our recall of negative memories. This combination can make the world look rather dismal and also start a vicious cycle of apprehension, anxiety and sadness – the prospect of gloom and doom sets off the amygdala, which reinforces the gloomy outlook, which sets off the amygdala and so on.

In contrast, views of nature activate brains centres that favour a positive outlook. These centres are associated with feelings of joy, pleasure, contentment and vitality and with the heightened recall of happy memories. They also fire up centres that are associated with emotional stability, better concentration, affection and empathy.

We don’t need brain scan studies to tell us that urban living places a strain on mental health. But the studies help us to understand why it does. More importantly, they show that we can dampen the activity of the urban brain and substantially reduce risks to our mental health by switching on the nature brain. A pretty good reason for “claiming our wildness”, I’d say.

I would be very interested to have your thoughts about this. Perhaps you have a personal story about turning on your nature brain to share. Hearing such stories can be very helpful.

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Renowned Australian author, Geraldine Brooks, has made the provocative but valid point that humanityhigh rise apartments is undertaking the most monumental experiment in the history of evolutionary biology. As a species, we have evolved for an uncrowded life in the openness of natural environments, but we are now flocking to live in very different one – the dense and crowded environment of cities and towns.

This movement is abundantly clear to us in Australia – one of the world’s most urbanised countries – but the United Nations estimates that by 2050, 69% of all humans will be concentrated in urban centres.

This wouldn’t be happening if there weren’t enormous material, social and cultural advantages to urban life. There is no denying that the quality of life we enjoy is attributable in many ways to the urbanisation of our society.

So not surprisingly, there is currently great enthusiasm for expanding our cities outwards and upwards – especially upwards. Indeed, we can be forgiven for thinking that the goal of many politicians, planners and developers is to cram as many apartments or units as possible on every available piece of urban land. Forget about uncrowded openness – higher density is the new desirable, it seems.

But increasing housing and population density comes with hazards.

  • As the population of residential buildings increases, trust cooperativeness, friendliness and altruistic behaviour tend to decline. An interesting experimental demonstration of this comes from a study comparing the caring behaviour of university students living in halls or residence (low density), apartments (medium density) or multi-storey towers (high density). The researchers used a subtle technique to measure the students’ neighbourly concern. Stamped addressed envelopes were scattered inside the buildings to create the sense that the “letters” had been lost by fellow residents. The researchers found that, after an interval of four hours, 100% of the letters in the low-density housing had been posted, compared with 87% in the medium density building and 63% in the high-density building.
  • Overcrowding is up to 3-4 times more likely in apartments, flats and units than in separate houses. As the number of individuals sharing a given space increases, people have to work harder to co-ordinate their activities with others. Avoiding frustration, conflict and a sense of not being in control is more difficult under these conditions. Overcrowding is often chronically stressful and a trigger for depression, anger, aggression and social withdrawal.
  • Overcrowding can be particularly damaging for children. Living in high-density apartments restricts children’s physical activity, independent mobility and active play. An Austrian study  found, for example, that an alarming 93% of children living in centrally located high-rise flats had behavioural problems, much more than children living in houses.
  • Even without the added ingredient of overcrowding, urban density is hazardous to mental health. City dwellers have a 21% greater risk for anxiety disorders and 39% greater for mood disorders such as depression. A massive Swedish study of four million people found that the incidence of schizophrenia and depression was, respectively, 73% and 16% higher in the densest urban areas compared with rural regions.

Understanding the link between density and mental health is a work in progress, but a series of German studies puts the spotlight squarely on stress. These studies used healthy volunteers from rural and urban backgrounds (either born or currently living in cities). While their brains were being scanned, the volunteers experienced the stress of being negatively evaluated as they were attempting difficult mental arithmetic tasks.

A consistent and remarkable finding was that “rural brains” and “urban brains” processed the stress via different neural centres and pathways. Unlike the rural brains, the urban brains used a pathway that is dominated by the amygdala, a major source of the dark emotions of anxiety, fear and aversion. In other words, the urban brains performed as if they were primed to respond more negatively to stress.

A possible reason for this is that urban brains have less access to the positive stimulation and buffering effects of nature. As neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, points out, our brains need plenty of positive buffering because they tend to be shaped more readily by bad experiences rather than pleasant ones. They hold onto negative memories in a “velcro-like” way but are “teflon-like” where positive memories are concerned. This means our brains are disposed to deliver a pessimistic rather than an optimistic view of life.

There is strong evidence that contact with nature can ameliorate this tendency. A study of 350,000 people in the Netherlands, for example, found that the prevalence of depression and anxiety was significantly less for people living in areas with 90% of green space compared with those in areas with only 10%.

For me the message is a no-brainer: approach the densification of our cities with caution. Such densification is inevitable, of course, but let’s do it in ways that prevent damage to individual and community well-being.

  • Let’s seek and be guided by objective answers to the questions, when and how does bigger (or denser) in the urban residential landscape come to pose unacceptable risks to health and quality of life?
  • Let’s take with radical seriousness the case for greening our buildings, precincts and neighbourhoods (Let’s make all residential design “biophilic design”)
  • Let’s do everything we can to ensure that every housing development

– has ample attractive green spaces where people can socialise, garden and play.

– is friendly to children, adolescents, the elderly and shut-ins

  • Let’s fight for the preservation, conservation and enhancement of all existing urban green space and bushland

Perhaps this 700 unit, medium density development not far from my home will provide a model to follow by delivering on the promises contained in its billboards.

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