When the Sydney Morning Herald recently published a photo of a cute puppy with the caption, “This puppy can change your thinking”, I was immediately intrigued. The accompanying news item reported that researchers at the University of New South Wales had used a photo of a puppy in a study to test whether or not the human brain makes use of unconscious information when making decisions.
It has long been believed that decisions, solutions to problems, insights and other smart mental activity can take place without the input of conscious analytical thought. Such behaviour is called intuition and all manner of people, including Albert Einstein, have claimed to have relied on it. But is intuition real? That’s the question which Galang Lufityanto and his colleagues at UNSW set out to answer.
They had their subjects observe a cloud of dots that looked a bit like “snow” on a TV screen and decide which way the dots were moving, to the left or right. They used some fancy gadgetry to send an emotionally toned image to one eye of their subjects – but in such a way that there was no consciousness of the image. The images that were used would reliably evoke either positive or negative emotion.
Now comes the clever bit. When a positive image was sent, the dots in the display moved in one direction but in the opposite direction when the image was negative. What this set up enabled the researchers to test was whether or not receiving the unconscious emotional guidance improved the decisions subjects made about the movement of the dots.
And it did. Subjects became more accurate, faster and confident on the task. For this to have happened, unconscious emotions must have been guiding decision making.
But where does the puppy figure in all of this? Well, a puppy image was one in the set used to trigger positive emotions. No surprise there. And you also won’t be surprised that among the negative images was one of a snake poised to strike and another of an attacking shark.
Although this study was concerned primarily with intuition, it has something very interesting to say about the human brain’s processing of information from nature. The study confirms that the brain can absorb such information subliminally and convert it into emotional signals that are capable of influencing learning and thinking.
As I read about this study, the “dog in the room” phenomenon came to mind. Put people together with a dog and they are likely to nicer to one another or put a dog in any everyday scene for that matter and the scene will be viewed more positively by an observer.
And it is not only animals that fire the “niceness” networks in our brains. Other features and objects from the natural world do so – beautiful and awe inspiring scenery, for example.
All of this fits nicely with the neurological studies showing that viewing typical urban and natural scenes activates remarkably different areas of our brains. A particularly notable finding is that, in contrast to natural scenes, urban scenes are much more likely to mobilise the brain’s alarm centre, the amygdala. The amygdala helps us to deal with dangers and threats to our well-being but it tends to do so by committing the brain to the flight or fight ( or stress) response at the expense of “non-urgent” brain activities, like solving problems, thinking creatively, and being empathic and socially open and agreeable.
What’s more, the amygdala is biased towards remembering negative experience and maintaining the brain in a state of vigilance and apprehension. An excessively busy amygdala can wire our brains to be anxious, impulsive, self-centred and unhappy. For that reason, neuropsychologist Rick Hansen says it is very important to expose our brain to positive information as frequently possible. Doing this builds neural pathways associated with positive states of mind, sociability, reflection and efficient problem solving.
Evidence supporting Hansen’s view is growing steadily. A recent study found, for example, that after four days of immersion in nature, newcomers to such an experience improved their performance on a creative, problem solving task by a full 50%. And there is even more compelling support for Hansen in the evidence that children progress faster academically in school settings where there is access to nature, and workers in “green” offices are likely to be more productive as well as less stressed and satisfied.
Perhaps you can explore the effect of nature on your own thinking by comparing your success with crosswords or Sudoku puzzles in two settings: indoors and outdoors in a garden or park. Or in a more serious vein, find if it helps to think about a troubling personal or work problem in a natural setting of some kind.