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Archive for the ‘Biophilia’ Category

In most Western societies, the physical distance between people and nature is growing. There are, for example, studies showing that since the 1980s, visitation per capita to national parks and other natural places has been declining in the USA, Japan and Australia. This is part of a more general trend for outdoor activities to be replaced by indoor and virtual forms of recreation. As Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic have suggested, “videophilia is replacing biophilia”.

Not surprisingly, there is now growing evidence that the physical isolation from nature is showing up as a pervasive cultural disconnect. The messages our minds are receiving from the words we read, the images we see and indeed the songs we sing are directing our attention less and less to the natural world.

Does it surprise you to learn that a study of 60 Disney and Pixar animated films made between 1937 and 2009 found a decline in the depiction of outdoor scenes and less biodiversity and more human impact in the scenes that were portrayed?

And what about this? An investigation of 296 children’s books that won Caldecott awards from 1938 to 2008 reported a similar decline, accompanied by an increase in the portrayals of human-built environments.

Films and books of fiction are cultural “products” and, as such, they reflect their creators’ minds and the cultural scene on which these minds are drawing.

If these creators have limited encounters with nature in popular culture, nature is less likely to feature in their work. And as communicators, they are less likely to refer to nature if they do not expect nature to resonate with their audiences. Is this, in fact, what is going on?

The answer is, Yes, and here is a graph that illustrates the reason for this answer.

 

As you can see straight away, the graph tells a story that spans the 100 years of the 20th century. It is also easy to see that it is a story that falls into two parts, one across the years to 1950, the second spanning the following 50 years.

The story can be told because the data bases and the technology are available to chart, year-by-year, the relative frequency with which words, phrases and other units of language have appeared in selected bodies of writing. The red line in the graph is just such a chart.

It shows, as a percentage of all words, how frequently 186 nature-related words were used in all fiction books published in English between the years1900 and 2000. In 1920, for example, the 186 words accounted for 0.40% of all words published; in 2000, the figure was close to 0.34%. The black lines in the graph show the overall trends in the figures.

The nature words (nouns and verbs) were objectively and very systematically chosen to cover four categories: general – e.g., hill, river, sunset; bird names – e.g., finch, heron, lark; tree names – e.g., birch, willow, poplar; and flower names – e.g., camellia, daisy, marigold.

What is clear from the graph is that, since 1950, the appearance of nature-related words in fiction books has fallen substantially and steadily. The same trend was not displayed by words, such as building, door, curtain, highway and computer, relating to the human-made environment.

The researcher responsible for these findings is Associate Professor Selin Kesebir from the London Business School. As part of the same study, she investigated trends in the number of references to nature for two other “products” of popular culture – song lyrics and film storylines.

Professor Kesebir found that references to nature in both lyrics and storylines exhibited the same downward trend as was detected in novels. This led her to conclude:

Nature features less in English popular culture today than it did in the first half of the 20th century.

She summarises the implications of her research eloquently and powerfully.

The pattern we documented is disconcerting in light of the strong evidence documenting the positive effects of contact with nature. To the extent that the disappearance of nature vocabulary from cultural conversation reflects an actual distancing from nature, the findings suggest unrealised gains to human health and well-being, as well as lost opportunities to nurture pro-environmental attitudes and stewardship behaviours.

There is another reason why these findings are of concern. Cultural products not only reflect the prevailing culture, they also shape it. Socialization that helps people to form, maintain, and reinforce particular worldviews. The flagging cultural attention to nature means a muting of the message that nature is worth paying attention to and being talked about. It also means a loss of opportunities to awaken curiosity, appreciation, and awe for nature.

The loss of physical contact with nature, combined with a parallel loss of symbolic contact through cultural products may set in motion a negative feedback loop, resulting in diminishing levels of interest in and appreciation for nature. In this light, our findings do not look auspicious. We hope that an awareness of the existing trends will be instrumental in instigating cultural leadership to reverse it.

Valid, eloquent and powerful as these words are, they are unlikely to change anything. In the face of the tide of popular culture, they are futile. It pains me to say this because I have written hundreds of thousands of words in the same vein. Naively perhaps, I once believed that if people were made aware of the value of a nature connection for them personally and collectively and for planet Earth, they would open their lives to nature – at least to some degree.

What do I think now? Well, I am still coming to terms with what is actually happening. But one thing I still believe is that there is a part all of us nature “lovers” can play in helping others reconnect with nature. How? – simply by inviting family, friends and acquaintances to join us in our nature-based activities. We need to do this in a patient, mindful, considerate and sensible way, of course, guided always by the “gradualism” principle. Success is not guaranteed but we owe it to others, ourselves and the future of planet Earth to try.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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As this is my first blog of 2017, let me wish you all a happy and nature-filled new year.

It is, in fact, my first blog in almost three months, breaking the pattern of fortnightly blogs very comprehensively.

hg-east-balcony-feb-2017During the gap in my blogging, my wife and I were very caught up in the business of downsizing and moving from our home of 55 years to an apartment in a retirement village. We left behind our much-loved garden and fernery, but have pleasant greenish outlooks and two balcony gardens to compensate.

If the whole truth be told, the distraction of the move hg-west-balcony-feb-19coincided with a spot of “blogger’s block”. During the past three or so years, I have always been able to source inspiration for my blogs from news items, life events, people or scientific reports concerned with biophilia or related topics. By November of 2016, my sources appeared to have dried up (from my viewpoint at least).

Hopefully, 2017 will see the streams flowing again.

A recent newspaper report about how Finland intends to commemorate a significant national anniversary is a promising start. It seems that the whole of Finland is preparing to celebrate nature as a central part of the country’s Centennial Jubilee.

Since 2013, Finns have celebrated their connection with nature on a Nature Day held in the height of summer on the last Saturday in August. In the centenary year of 2017, there will be three added Nature Days: the first in February to encourage Finns to revel in winter finland-bwonderlands; the second in June when spring will be wholeheartedly embraced; and the third in June when everyone will be urged to enjoy the long summer nights – by sleeping outdoors if possible.

On the traditional Nature Day in August, the Finnish flag will be flown in “honour of the country’s natural environment”, making Finland the first country in the world to acknowledge its natural scenic and recreational finland-dresources in this way. Nine out of ten Finns support celebrating their natural heritage as part of their country’s centennial jubilee. About 50 organisations are co-operating.

One aim of the Nature Day campaign is to have the Finnish flag in as many places as possible including on nature trails and as decorations for hiking food. A host of activities is planned or being promoted, including choral concerts in all 40 national parks and “dinners under the sky” in natural settings. There is a strong push, as well, to have people organise independent events such as inviting family and friends to have a campfire meal, accompanying an elderly person on a parkland walk or arranging family reunions in natural settings.

Apart from fostering national pride and nature awareness, the Nature Day campaign also aims to promote conservation and encourage nature play in children, both areas requiring attention despite the Finns’ relatively strong physical and psychological affinity with nature as expressed in the philosophy of frlluftsliv – “free air life”.

Quite rightly, Nature Day is attracting a great deal of international interest. Finland is greatly favoured by an abundance of beautiful landscapes and the drama of radically changing seasons, but it is not unique as far as having natural assets is concerned. Even the most densely populated countries on the planet have their wild and urban green spaces.

I believe that the concept of Nature Day could be made to work almost everywhere. All that is required is the spark of enthusiastic leadership and the active support of community organisations, the media and government agencies. Look what has happened to the Clean-up Australia day movement. From small-scale beginnings, it has grown to become a model for similar campaigns in other countries.

A local council, service group such as Rotary or Lions Club, church or school could get the ball rolling. This could be even better perhaps than having the lead come from the state or national government.

I would love to receive comments about the idea. Why not suggest a Nature Day activity that could be easily undertaken a family, neighbourhood group or community.

 

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On a field trip surveying gorges in the Northern Flinders ranges of South Australia, consultant what-is-it-about-caves-a-warratji-cavearchaeologist, Giles Hamm, wandered up a creek bed seeking a private spot for a “comfort stop”. He noticed an “amazing spring” surrounded by rock art and then 20 metres above the creek bed a rock shelter (now with the name of Warratyi Rock Shelter).

The smoke-blackened roof of the shelter indicated to him that it had once been used by Aboriginal people. Subsequent investigation of the shelter has produced bone tools and other cultural artefacts from 49,000 years ago. These finds put the Aboriginal presence in the area 10,000 years further back in time than had previously been thought.

Even without the evidence of cooking fires, the shelter would have sparked Giles’ professional interest. He would no doubt be aware that rock shelters and caves have been magnets for human beings for almost as long as our species has been around.

The Warratyi shelter combines two key features that humans find attractive – prospect, a partially framed view or outlook and refuge, protection from attack (especially from behind) and from the elements.

In 1975, the English geographer, Jay Appleton, advanced the theory that prospect and refuge satisfy two desires that shape what we find attractive and interesting in both art and the landscape. The first of these is the desire to know what is present and what is happening in our surrounding environment. The second is the desire for physical security. According to the theory, both desires are inborn legacies of survival needs that shaped the genome of our species.

The theory says basically that we humans are attracted to situations and art that present to us vistas and places, such as copses of trees and caves as well as rock shelters, where refuge could be found.

prospect-and-refuge-vista-imageprospect-and-refuge-art-image

The scientific testing of Appleton’s theory is incomplete but it is easy to find “everyday evidence” of the pull of prospect and refuge on our minds, even in infancy and childhood. Witness the delight of children in cubbies and treehouses, for example. And what about the millions of dollars people are prepared to pay to own a house in an elevated position that commands a panoramic view of some kind? Think too of the many tourist meccas whose appeal lies in the spectacular views they offer. Talk to people like me who love walking in nature and you will soon learn that high on our list of favourite places will be vantage points and caves or rock shelters suitable for resting and camping. whitecollarwalker

More enclosed places seem to add further dimensions to the prospect-refuge experience – especially feelings of awe and a sense of mystery.

For many years, I took people regularly to Spider Canyon in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Though short in length, this canyon has several very confined, cave-like what-is-it-about-caves-spider-canyonstretches that are easily walked through. I always liked to reach the deepest and darkest of these sections moments ahead of the rest of my party just to watch and hear people’s reactions to the place.

I expected to hear and see expressions of delight, wonder and excitement, and I was never disappointed. As you can see from the photo, there is an “other world” look about the depths of Spider Canyon, an impression that is much stronger when you are actually in it.

It is a place that fosters an understanding of why caves have the power to capture the human imagination, being as they often are places of weirdness, wonder, gloominess, mystery and fear.

It is not accidental that dark zones of caves have so often been important sacred or mythological spaces in the ritual, artistic and ideological lives of humans. Traditions of ritual cave use have originated at different times in widely separated geographic areas and may be traced back to the earliest of our ancestors.

In my bushwalking, I have visited several caves, mostly of the rock shelter variety, where Aboriginal people have left their mark in the form of hand stencils and animal paintings. I also know of at least three caves where white Australians chose to live for weeks at a time. One was the retreat of Dr Eric Dark and his wife, the renowned author Eleanor Dark. The photos shows the kitchen section of their cave along with utensils, some of which they may have used during their stays there in the 1930s.

There is certainly something about caves.

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Among the presents Zoe (my great granddaughter) received for her second birthday was a photobook about her recent trip to Sydney. The book was enclosed in 20 X 15 cm red vinyl covers, the front one containing a window showing the title of the book.

But when Zoe removed the wrapping from her present, the first thing she saw was the unmarked back cover. Her immediate response was one of delight. “Ipad”, she announced.

She was obviously disappointed when she realised that the “ipad” was in fact a book (although some pleasure was restored when she saw that the book was all about her).

Barely two years of age, Zoe made clear that she is already an enthusiastic member of the electronic age.

This was the second of two incidents that “inspired” this post. The first was my viewing of a short film that Josh Gosh (author of The jaguar and its allies blog) brought to my attention. Please take a moment to view  this heart-warming, informative and provocative film before reading further.

The two incidents came together in my mind as I reflected on the reality that, for children in our society, the electronic media are an inescapable and, increasingly, indispensable component of their lives. An associated reality is that the virtual and cyber worlds accessed by electronic media are luring children away from the outdoor play and nature experiences that are essential for the healthy development of their bodies and minds. Both realities, the second one especially, give reasons for concern – a particularly grave one being that our children are at risk of developing videophilia (a love of virtual reality) at the expense of biophilia (the love of natural reality).

With awareness of this risk surfacing (yet again) in my mind, I recalled the film and found myself pondering the thought that perhaps videophilia could be made an ally of biophilia – at least to some degree. It is now established scientifically that the human brain responds to pictorial and electronic images of nature much as it does to real-life nature experiences. So, why not use computers, ipads, smart phones and the like to bring nature to the minds of children in a way that nurtures biophilia?

With Zoe on hand, I decided to put this idea to a test of sorts. I sat her in front of my computer and played the film.  img_1521

She watched all six minutes of it intently, keeping her eyes on the screen even when her grandmother was commenting on some of the content.

“Did you enjoy the film?” I asked, to which she replied with her version of “Yes”.

But the real indication of the impact of the film on her came some minutes later.

Her aunty Bek arrived for a visit and immediately Zoe insisted she come to the computer and watch the film with her. This time, Zoe was the commentator, smiling and gesturing to convey her pleasure.img_1539

I am sufficiently encouraged by Zoe’s response to begin exploring the Internet for other nature material for her to watch – to supplement, I stress, not replace real nature activities.

I know that this is not an original thing to be doing. And in a later post, I will write about a father who has managed to confine most of his children’s on-line viewing to You Tube compilations he has made of videos and films about animals and nature generally.

 

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I find my back garden very relaxing and restorative. I was sitting there yesterday enjoying the display of spring blooms – orange clivias, yellow cymbidium orchids, mauve bromeliads, white rock lillies and yellow hibbertia – against the backdrop of differently shaped, coloured and textured vegetation.

My pleasure was tinged with regret because I was aware that the garden would not be mine for much longer. This prompted me to take these photos:

img_1465-enhancedimg_1464-enhanced

As you can see the garden is more informal than formal. I cannot really claim that it was planned to be this way. It is more an evolved than a designed garden, the product of intuition rather than horticultural expertise – of luck rather than good management you might say.

What I find interesting, however, is that the combination of intuition and luck seems to have produced a space that works very well psychologically for me (and others I have reason to believe). And this is really what matters.

As the pioneering psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung pointed out, “nature” and “landscape” (and “gardens” by implication) are psychological constructs or products of the mind. A contemporary writer on the psychology of visual landscapes, Maarten Jacobs, makes much the same point with this diagram:

psychology-of-visiual-landscape

One important thing this diagram tells us is that, as far as all natural landscapes including my garden are concerned, the “experienced” landscape is different from the “real” one. This can mean that what passes as a horticulturally excellent garden landscape can miss the mark psychologically.

This is demonstrated in a well-designed American study that compared the restorative potential of informal (or organic) versus formal (or geometric) gardens. The authors of the study did more than make a simplistic comparison between gardens at the extreme of natural and formal; variations within each of these broad categories were also compared.

The 295 male and female participants in the study represented a broad range of ages and ethnic backgrounds. They were each shown 40 photos of gardens chosen by a horticultural expert to form two sets – formal gardens from most to least and informal gardens from least to most. These are examples of the photos used:

formal-versus-informal-most-formal

Each participant ranked every photo according to four attributes:

  • Perceived restorative potential (how good a place it would be for a break when you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious)
  • Informality
  • Visual appeal
  • Naturalness (degree to which natural versus built features are present)

A sophisticated analysis of the responses revealed that the gardens having the highest perceived restorative potential were:

  •  Visually appealing
  • Informal
  • More natural than built

According to other research, features that give gardens their greatest psychological power include:

  • Unaltered terrain
  • Graceful curvilinear shapes
  • Few architectural elements
  • Many native plant species following their normal habits of growth
  • Natural looking water features such as ponds and streams
  • Partly open rather than dense vegetation
  • The absence of geometrical shapes and properties like axes and symmetry

It is no accident that these are much the same features our earliest human ancestors would have recognised and welcomed in their savannah woodland homes. It is strongly suspected that we modern humans are drawn to informal and natural landscapes because of predispositions and preferences that are inherited from our forebears and encoded in our genes (the biological factors in Maarten Jacobs’ diagram). So it is probably the case that my back garden is as much a product of my green genes as of gardening guidebooks or anything else.

 

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