I had the opportunity recently to introduce my three-months-old great granddaughter, Zoe, to my garden, access to which is through a fairly densely stocked fernery. I had no idea how Zoe would react. Most of her waking hours during her visit were spent wooing a parade of doting adults with smiles, chuckles, cute noises and much arm and leg activity.
In the fernery, her behaviour was very different. No smiling or vocalising, no arm raising or leg kicking – just sitting quietly in my arms with eyes steadily fixed on the plants. She was content to hold her little body in this posture for well over five minutes while I moved slowly along the fernery and around the garden. There was virtually no head turning in search of another interest. Her behaviour was the same when I repeated the exercise the following day.
Exactly what was claiming Zoe’s attention is not clear. It may simply have been the novelty of the change from indoor to outdoor scenery or the patterns made by the filtered sunlight. But there was something about the steadiness and persistence of her gaze to indicate that the plants themselves were the focus of her interest.
I suspect that Zoe was displaying her biophilia – her innate predisposition to find plants (along with other living things) intrinsically interesting. According to the biophilia concept, humans are born with both a desire to connect with nature and the mental “skills” and preferences to act on that desire.
But this does not mean that, when she is older, Zoe will be in a rush to touch and taste leaves and other parts of plants. Results from a series of experiments conducted by Yale University researchers, Annie Wertz and Karen Wynn, indicate that infants are inherently wary about exploring plants manually. They are not afraid of, or uninterested in, plants, just cautious about handling them.
This finding does not run counter to the biophilia concept. Quite the contrary – it helps us appreciate what a nuanced concept it is. Many plants have thorns, spikes, hairs, oils and toxins that can be dangerous, even deadly, to humans. The human brain has responded to these “ancestral dangers” by evolving protective mechanisms that prompt the kind of caution observed by Wertz and Wynn. These mechanisms are as much part of the biophilia package as is the predisposition to “like” nature.
And there is even more to the story. In a separate series of experiments, the same two researchers found evidence that the instinctive reluctance of infants to touch plants is offset by an innate ability to learn rapidly from others how to respond appropriately to plants. Wertz and Wynn had infants (8 and 18 months of age) watch an adult take and eat food (an item of dried fruit) from a real plant as well as from a similar looking artificial plant and an object made roughly to look like the real plant. Although the behaviour of the adult was identical in all trials, the infants learned significantly faster to take food from the plant. It seems that this is something their brains were selectively primed to do.
I am looking forward to many more opportunities to watch Zoe discover the natural world. She is a fortunate little girl as she lives in a semi-rural area with plants and animals all around. If the findings of numerous research studies are anything to go by, growing up in such an environment will advantage her in all sorts of ways.