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Archive for March, 2017

Perhaps you saw the first episode of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II, the documentary I mentioned in my last post, which is currently being screened in Australia on Channel 7. If you didn’t, or even if you did, please turn your mind off other things and take a few minutes to look at this promotional trailer.

Having watched the trailer and before reading on, think about some of the emotions that the scenes evoked. Did you experience awe, joy and amusement for example? Were your feelings more positive after the viewing than before? Do you think that looking at nature content like this improves your general sense of well-being?

These are the kind of questions that the BBC, the producers of Planet Earth II, also posed and sought answers to. They recruited a leading authority on human emotions and well-being, Dacher Keltner to help them.

Based at the University of California, Berkley, Professor Keltner is a social psychologist who is a leader in the study of the biological and evolutionary origins of the positive and benevolent or “prosocial” human emotions such as compassion, love, gratitude, awe, aesthetic pleasure and humour. Apart from his impressive academic publications, he is the author of the best-selling, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. He is co-director of the Greater Good Science Centre (a visit to the Centre’s website is highly recommended).

As some of Keltner’s work has focussed on the impact of nature on our positive and benevolent emotions, he was a very appropriate person to undertake the kind of survey that the BBC required.

The way Keltner and his team went about the task was to sample adult members of TV viewing audiences in the UK, USA, Australia, India, Singapore and South Africa, 7500 people in all. The recruits were assigned randomly to view one of five short video clips: two from Planet Earth II (just like the one you may have just viewed), one showing a montage of news reports, one comprising scenes from a TV drama and the last presenting an excerpt from a DIY instructional video.

Emotional responses before and after viewing the clips were assessed using a questionnaire that measures positive emotions, a stress scale and facial mapping technology that measure a viewer’s subconscious (emotional) facial responses when viewing a video.

The producers of Planet Earth would have been very pleased with the findings of the survey. Watching content from Planet Earth II produced:

  • significant increases in feelings of awe, contentedness, joy, amusement and curiosity, but
  • reduced feelings of tiredness, anger and stress.

Some fancy statistical analyses demonstrated that these effects could indeed be traced to the kind of content viewed – natural history versus that in the control clips.

It is unlikely that Keltner and his colleague would have been surprised by their results. Evidence from 150 or so studies give scientists strong grounds for believing that exposure to nature, whether direct or via media of one kind and another, reduces stress, increases calm and improves mental efficiency and creativity.

There is also growing evidence that contact with nature produces “elevating” effects whereby our minds are expanded, our morality strengthened and our concern for others deepened. In short, “nature makes us nicer” (as well happier and smarter).

Given this scientific reality, why is it such a struggle to get people to listen to the message and to take advantage of it, especially as tapping into the reality can be done so easily? One minute of gazing at a stand of Tasmanian eucalypts in a university campus was all it took to heighten feelings of awe in young adults – feelings that were associated with a display of diminished self-centredness and heightened ethical sensitivity.

There is no suggestion here that a minute of immersion in nature is all it takes to change a person’s long term well-being and attitude to others. But the finding does demonstrate just how responsive the human brain is to the sensory richness, beauty, awesomeness, limitless diversity and, yes, humour of nature.

Keltner would agree, I am sure, that a worthwhile step towards “elevating” individual human behaviour and creating less violent and more compassionate human societies is to enhance people’s connectedness with the natural world.

And we need to be taking such steps in today’s world. Do you agree?

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In a scene from his latest documentary, Planet Earth 2, Sir David Attenborough is surveying a natural landscape from the basket of a floating hot-air balloon.  “It’s impossible not to be impressed by the sheer grandeur, and splendour and power of the natural world”, he remarks.

That, a cynic might say, is the kind of thing you would expect him to say, given that he has been rewarded handsomely, materially and otherwise, for spending much of his life immersed in the natural world. Surely his exceptionally privileged career as a naturalist and documentary maker has given him a romanticised view of nature (some might say).

Even a less cynical person might be tempted to think that Sir David’s enthusiasm is a unique product of the extraordinary opportunities he has had to revel in the “grandeur”, “splendour” and “power” of the natural world.

There is undoubtedly some truth in this view, but it is far from the full picture.

The biological foundations of Sir David’s passion for nature are shared by everyone. We all come into the world with a brain that has an inherent disposition to seek and to enjoy nature. This disposition, known scientifically as biophilia, contains the potential for a profoundly enriching relationship with nature. We have to accept, however, that biophilia is thought to be a “weak” biological tendency, meaning that regular and positive interactions with the natural world are necessary if it to flourish in the human psyche and behaviour.

Fortunately, it does not necessarily have to be the world of wild nature that Sir David has experienced so extensively. Biophilia can be nurtured in all sorts of “green spaces”, including gardens, parks and other forms of domesticated nature. Even representations of nature in photos and paintings are able to provide some of the emotional building blocks of biophilia.

The building process works like this:

 

  • we have an encounter with nature in some form (flower, native animal, sunset, panorama, seascape, for example);
  • in response, brain chemicals, notably dopamine, trigger positive or “feel-good” emotions such as pleasure, joy, tranquillity, calmness and wonder; and
  • these pleasant and rewarding feelings motivate us to repeat the experience.

 

It is true to say that the process cultivates a form of subtle addiction. It tends to make our contacts with nature “self-multiplying” – the more contacts we have, the more we seek. That is why people who have gardens, compared with those without, are more likely to visit parks and other green spaces, and to take their children with them. And the children who are exposed to green spaces in this and other ways are more likely to become nature seeking and nature valuing adults.

A great thing about the process is that it requires little conscious management by us, apart from putting ourselves in touch with nature is some appropriate way to begin with. Once we have initiated a nature experience, our senses, emotions and unconscious cognitive processes take over – often in ways that range well beyond simply being “impressed”.

The “grandeur” of nature, for example, can

 

  • provide a profound sense of satisfaction and joy
  • transport us from the here-and-now to places beyond ourselves
  • make us kinder and more sociable
  • give us a sense of unity or “at-one-ment” with nature, others and the cosmos in general.

 

The eminent Australian biologist, the late Professor Charles Birch defined “at-one-ment” as the “experience of oneness with ourselves, with others, with the world, with the universe and with God”. It is, he says, the “most ultimate encounter”, the “opposite of being adrift and separate from the rest of existence”.

Urban environments can never lead us to at-one-ment, but nature can.

Possibly (and hopefully), it is a deep, intuitive inkling of this fact that is at work motivating some city dwellers to pay more for accommodation near green spaces. In research conducted in Vienna, Dr Shanaka Herath of the University of Wollongong found that apartment prices dropped by 0.13 – 0.26 % for every 1% increase in distance from the nearest green space. Similar findings have been reported from cities in the UK, Canada and South Korea, he says. Judging by anecdotal reports from buyers agents, the same is true of Australian capital cities with some buyers prepared to pay up to 10% more for homes with greenery around them.

Maybe this is telling us that biophilia is a more robust trait than it is generally thought to be.

Even if that is the case, we still must heed the call made by Sir David in Planet Earth 2:

Now, over half of us live in an urban environment. My home, too, is here, in the city of London. Looking down on this great metropolis [as he was at the time], the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking.

But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world.

Yet, it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And surely, [it is] our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.

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