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Archive for April, 2016

When the Sydney Morning Herald recently published a photo of a cute puppy with the caption, “Thiscute puppy 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.1172774-young-blond-girl-sitting-thinking-in-a-forest

Man sitting in wheelchair in a garden

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There have been several newspaper reports and commentaries recently holding up Finland’s education system as a model to be followed. Apparently Finland’s children lead the world in literacy, numeracy and other markers of educational progress. They manage this even though they do not start formal schooling until they are seven years old and they have more free play at school than children elsewhere. There is a mandatory 15-minute play break every hour during the school day. Fresh air, nature and regular physical activity are considered engines of learning. Outdoor play is encouraged even in the harsh Finnish winter. “There is no bad weather; only inadequate clothing” is a guiding maxim.

Finland’s approach to education is grounded in several entrenched and powerful cultural values. A high respect for and trust of teachers is one. Egalitarianism is another. A third – and the one that has really caught my attention – is referred to throughout Scandinavia as frituftsliv (free-tuufts-leave), which literally means “free air life”. Frituftsliv is a lifestyle philosophy that is a conspicuous part of educational policy not only in Finland but in other Scandinavian countries as well.

The central message of frituftsliv is the importance of experiencing the natural world directly in an uncomplicated way. This image of a three-year-old simply collecting sticks on a bushland track is highly likely to be a depiction of frituftsliv.

Object play

Frituftsliv is a relationship, not an activity. While the frituftliv’s deep emotional and spiritual connectedness can arise from many of the things we do in nature, most nature activities have nothing to do with frituftliv. Any activity in which the features and resources of nature are treated as means to an end is unlikely to qualify as frituftliv. That is why learning about nature as a hobby or as an academic undertaking is not frituftliv. Nor are “adventure” activities such as backpacking, rock climbing, mountaineering and white water rafting. Even living out-of-doors is not necessarily a frituftliv experience. The same can be said of activities that use or “consume” nature as a therapy or as a means of escaping urban life.

Frituftliv is an unconditional relationship with the natural world – a relationship with no strings attached. It involves encounter, an I-you rather than an I-it form of participation with nature. Frituftliv is an acceptance of nature as it is, with all the challenges it can pose and the discomforts it can deliver. In frituftliv, there is no attempt to change nature to serve one’s own purposes; rather it is a relationship of co-operation harmony or “oneness” with nature.

In a frituftliv relationship no purpose is needed to connect with nature – just as being with a loved one is a sufficient end in itself.

That is why having no purpose for seeking the companionship of nature is the best “purpose” for doing so.

The nature that most reliably evokes frituftsliv is “true”, authentic or undisturbed nature. Scandinavia is richly endowed with nature of this kind. Irrespective of whether it is part of the public estate or privately owned, Scandinavian nature is regarded as “free” – free in the sense of being accessible to all in accordance with the unwritten convention of allemansrätten – The Right of Public Access, which provides the possibility for everyone to visit someone’s else’s land for the purpose of engaging with nature.

This “right” is bound up with the belief that “free” nature is our true home and that frituftliv is the way back to that home. While the foundations of that belief are historical and philosophical, it is now supported by a strengthening scientific case. Having evolved in natural environments, our brains are adapted to the rhythms and forms (especially fractal shapes and patterns) of nature. When we give these brains of ours the stimuli they are looking for, we are rewarded with feelings of harmony and of “coming home”.

If you have experienced a campfire experience, you may recall these feelings of calm and contentment.

When looking into a fireplace we feel the flames alive and attracting our attention. No artificial light, like the cold mechanical lifeless light of a flashlight, will ever attract us in the same way. What is the difference between the dead flashlight and the living spirit of the flames, if not the fractal rhythms that so much stimulate our perception? (Hans Gelter)

People around camp-fire

This photo reminds me that frituftliv also provides a social experience that many people in our urban, high-speed society are missing, that of sharing a nature activity where participants are dependent on one another. Through such activities, frituftliv, recreates the tribal life with the same sense of security that comes from belonging to an interdependent group. This is a human resource and a form of human wealth that we have lost in our urban life. In this and other ways, frituftliv fulfils basic human needs and creates a sensation of wholeness.

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