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Archive for the ‘Well-being’ Category

The study of nature’s effects on our thoughts, feelings and behaviour is now pushing into very exciting territory – the working human brain.

In a landmark study published in 2010, a team of Korean researchers compared activity in the brains of 28 adults, both males and females, while they were viewing coloured photos of urban and natural scenes. The technology used, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), revealed the parts of the brain that were most active under the two viewing conditions. When urban scenes were being viewed, activity was located in regions of the brain, notably the amygdala, that are associated with stress, anxiety and impulsiveness. In contrast, natural scenes lit up regions, such as the anterior cingulate gyrus and insula, that regulate empathy and altruistic behaviour.

Similar links between nature and human emotions have been demonstrated in a host of psychological studies, but the Korean study provides the kind of “hard” physiological evidence that science prefers. I believe, in fact, that the two markedly different patterns of brain activity described in the study allow us to speak of an “urban brain” and a “nature brain”.

With additional hard evidence from recent work at the University of Edinburgh to hand, my belief is strengthened. Researchers there took advantage of technology that enables brain function to be monitored while a person is in “real” rather than artificial laboratory settings. The technology uses a “skull cap” housing electrodes that detect the brain’s different bands of electromagnetic activity – alpha waves indicating restful andUrban vs rural brain emotiv_epoc_600 relaxed alertness, for example, Beta waves when the brain is busy processing information or Delta waves, which   indicate deep restfulness when they are present, or restless and agitation when they are suppressed.

Information from the electrodes is transmitted to a computer where very smart emotion-detection software interprets it and delivers a moment by moment picture of the person’s state of mind. The emotions measured are excitement, arousal, frustration (as when coping with a challenging task), alertness and meditation.

In one study, the Edinburgh group sent 20 skull-cap fitted students on a walk that took them through both urban and green precincts. In the urban settings, the students’ brains were more busy and alert, whereas walking in green spaces was associated with higher meditation and lower arousal, alertness and frustration. Interestingly, very similar results were obtained when the Edinburgh team repeated the study using photos to simulate exposure to urban and green environments.

Here we have clear evidence that nature is writing a script for our brain. Certainly, life experiences contribute massively to the same script, especially to its intellectual or “overlying” content. But nature makes its impact on the script’s emotional or “underlying” substance, which exercises a powerful influence on virtually every aspect of our learning and thinking as well as our feelings, attitudes and values. In the human evolutionary story, adaptation and behaviour were controlled by the emotions long before the intellect emerged. And the primacy of emotions remains in the makeup of all of us. This is so, despite our (recently evolved) capacity for wisdom, problem solving, rationality, innovation and creativity. We may be creators of complex and sophisticated cultures but nature, via our emotions, holds our intellect and our cultures on a leash.

The most prWilson Kellert The Biophilia hypothesisofound, pervasive and powerful expression of nature’s scripting of our brains is expressed in the emotion-driven disposition we all have to engage with the natural world. Known as biophillia, this disposition arises from a complex mix of emotional, sensory, cognitive and physical components. It is also a fragile disposition that flourishes only when it is nurtured in and through the regular experience of nature.

When nurtured, biophilia delivers an amazing range of benefits (I like to refer to them as gifts) for human well-being. In my book, I refer to these benefits as “gifts”.

The book encourages its readers to claim these gifts and explains how this can be done – even by busy urban dwellers. But I am realist enough to accept that many people genuinely believe that they lack the time, resources, CYW_Cover_finalopportunities or capabilities to become “nature persons”.

The perception that time for nature and leisure time generally are in short supply is widely held. Unfortunately, there is some basis to this view. In his book, Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, Rutger Bregman speaks of increased leisure time as “the forgotten dream”. From the mid-19th century through the first three quarters of the 20th, increased productivity and economic expansion were accompanied by reductions in working hours. But from in the 1980s, “workweek reductions came to a grinding halt”.

Economic growth was translated not into more leisure, but into more stuff. In countries like Australia, Austria, Norway, Spain, and England, the workweek stopped shrinking altogether. In the U.S. it actually grew..

But that’s not all. Even in countries that have seen a reduction in the individual workweek, families have nevertheless become more pressed for time.

The reason for this pressure, Bregman explains, is the feminist revolution, which among other things has seen women throng to the ranks of the paid workforce. This did not mean that men worked less (and helped more in the home), quite the contrary. Couples in the 1950s worked a combined total of five to six days a week; now it’s closer to seven or eight. At the same time parenting has become much more time-intensive. Working mothers in the U.S. spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1950s.

There has been another development as well – work and leisure have become increasingly entangled – largely as a consequence of communication technologies such as the Ipad, laptop and smartphone breaching the boundary between home and work.

All of these trends are increasing the burden of work. What is more, they are fostering the closely related beliefs that “time is money”, that leisure is simply too expensive and that working less would result in a fall in living standards. Bregman’s book exposes the fallacy of these beliefs along with many of the pet tenets of materialist and economic rationalist ideology.

I had to agree with my friend (and super talent), Tory Hughes’s, recent remark to me that many people need to be reassured that it’s OK to set aside time for leisure generally and for leisure in nature in particular.

No amount of work can do for your brain what nature can.

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In all of my writings about the life-enriching link between nature and human well-being, I have never talked about the bearing this link has on the quality of family life. In my book, Claim Your Wildness, I advocate engaging in nature activities on a family basis, but nowhere have I actually explained the reason for my enthusiasm.

One reason for this is that research has little to say about the topic. This is very surprising as it is easy to find anecdotal evidence (from people’s informal observations and experiences) indicating that shared nature activities can enhance and strengthen family life in all manner of valuable ways.

Based on my own family’s experience, I feel that a great deal of confidence can be placed in this anecdotal evidence. This is not to suggest for one minute that what nature has done for my family it will do for all families. Families and family life are just too diverse for that to be the case. But there is much that families have in common so that what has happened to one family may be a helpful guide and perhaps inspiration to others in some respects at least.

So with that possibility in mind, I asked my immediate family members (wife, Margaret and adult daughters, Wendy and Susan) to reflect on the impact that shared nature activities, primarily bushwalking and trekking, have had on our life together as a family.

Beginning when our daughters were very young, Margaret and I made Saturday a “family day”, which often involved an outdoor activity of one kind or another. When the girls were older, these outdoor activities morphed into bushwalking which included the occasional backpacking weekend and extended supported walk such as the Milford Track “tramp” in New Zealand. When the girls were in their early teens, we graduated from bushwalking to Himalayan trekking. From then on, nature-based activities formed a core component  of our family’s way-of-life – fostering a healthy lifestyle centred largely on physical activity as well as expanding our pleasures, interests, mental well-being and social connectedness.

Margaret had this to say about this powerfully formative part of our family life:

Bushwalking was an activity that came into our family fortuitously. The girls were not involved with weekend sport, so the four of us were free to go out on Saturdays or weekends. The fact that we enjoyed this family activity set us a bit apart from others, as we were all involved in it at an age that was significant for the girls. It was an incredibly ‘ bonding’ opportunity, even though we may not have realised it at the time – experiencing an activity outside our day-to-day routine. 

We all had to learn about responsibility to the group as well as ourselves. We experienced many challenges, gained confidence, got over differences, cooperated, laughed and gained much knowledge and information. I think we saw each other in a broader, different setting.

The activity itself immersed us in nature to varying degrees on different occasions, but again laid the basis for nurturing our inner spirit as well as appreciating and understanding the beauty of the bush. 

Our first trip to Nepal was an incentive to take a shared ‘walking’ holiday in a very different country. It was, at the time, an unusual thing for a family to do and as we now know, set the background for a wider experience of the world than we could ever have anticipated. It certainly extended our horizons and influenced future choices in life.

Bushwalking introduced us to people beyond our social scene, creating long-lasting relationships and interests. It taught us that we can manage things we didn’t think we were capable of, and about patience, tolerance and adaptability, solitude and silence. Most of all, it provided us with a world of wonder and interconnected life that is to be shared and cherished.

Both Wendy and Susan were certain that the countless hours we spent together in nature contributed very significantly to our togetherness as a family. They provided these specific points in support of their view:

  • Trekking and bushwalking are unhurried activities that give the gift of time for being together as a family – talking and sharing or simply being in one another’s company. They encourage connecting with your companions as much as with the natural environment.
    • They were also activities that brought the family together around a range of shared attitudes and values, including: love and respect for nature, non-materialism, the primacy of experiences over possessions, living simply and openness to the world beyond suburbia.
  • Trekking and bushwalking also provided an abundance of shared experiences – many of them new and challenging (even fearful) but almost always satisfying and rewarding.
    • They are also levelling experiences in the sense that the demands and challenges were usually the same for all four of us; we were engaging with mum and dad as equals rather than as (powerful) parents and (less powerful) children – an unusual and healthy family dynamic that contributed significantly to building a distinctive family identity.
  • Bushwalking and trekking broadened and deepened our family’s social network, especially by giving us friends to share. People tend to be very supportive of one another when sharing the challenges, discoveries and pleasures of outdoor activities. As our family certainly discovered, strong and enduring friendships often result.
    • Highly valued and memorable shared experiences brought our family together by giving us those “Remember when…” moments that can help families move beyond conflict or irritation to affection or admiration. “Yes, X (dad, mum, sister) does sometimes drive me mad but the way they kept me going that day when I thought I would never reach the summit was so good!”
  • Doing demanding activities together as family was phenomenally powerful. The fact that mum and dad were doing something that was new and challenging for them as well as for us provided an extraordinarily valuable model (of considered “envelope pushing” and healthy risk-taking). For this reason preparing for a trek was often as valuable for togetherness and the trek itself.

Wendy offered the additional thought that our family togetherness owes something to a shared vision of life drawn from the kind of experiences of nature we have shared. This is how she describes this vision as it appears to her:

The whole bushwalking experience has been a very strong metaphor for my life.  There are the times you have a level path clearly in front of you, glorious views, a light pack and the opportunity to talk (or not talk) to lovely companions. There are times when you need one of those companions to shoulder your pack for you, take your hand, talk you through etc. There are times when the path is pretty unclear and you can’t see your companions, your pack feels like boulders and you just have to trust your gut that you are heading the right way. There are times when you just plod on, not really focussing but simply putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that it won’t always feel like this. And there are times at summits, along ridges or flying down a hill that you almost feel superhuman – super connected.

 And a final word from the two girls:

We are certainly very grateful that we bushwalked and trekked together as a family. To some extent it made us the family we are – resourceful, forgiving, tolerant of one another, aware of how to encourage (what to say/ not to say) and resilient.

 

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The renowned nature photographer and author, Joel Sartore,  is on a mission. He has set out to photograph every species of animal currently housed in the world’s zoos. With portraits of over 6000 species already taken, he is halfway towards completing his project, which he calls Photo Ark. His quest is to create a photo archive of global diversity with the hope that his portraits will stir in people a deep empathy with animals and an active desire to protect them from extinction. He is undertaking the project against the background of the calamitous species loss almost everywhere on Earth. It has been estimated that unless massive remedial action is taken, half the animal species currently inhabiting the planet will be gone by the end of the century.

Sartore’s portraits are both beautiful and moving. He tries to take his shots with the animal looking

A photo from Photo Ark

directly into the lens, so creating the impression that the animal is making eye contact and forming a connection with the viewer.

While we are all genetically programmed to pay attention to animals, we are more attracted to, and more empathic with, species that share similar features and/or behaviours to ourselves. This is sometimes referred to as the “similarity principle”.

Regardless of the enormous range of size, shape and other differences that separate our species from others, the main features of the human face (especially the eyes) have their counterparts in mammals, birds and other members of the animal kingdom. By focussing on the faces of his animal subjects, Sartore is making clever (but entirely appropriate) use of the similarity principle.

There is something of a tragic irony in the fact that we humans evolved to live with other animals and to share our ancestral forest and grassland habitats with them. There was nothing in this arrangement that required the extinction of species. The web of life is intended to remain intact – not to have great holes in it.

The evidence that our brain has an “animal bias” is irrefutable. We are hard-wired to notice animals and to pay attention to them involuntarily. When people are shown pictures of animals, a specific part of the amygdala – a brain structure that is central to pleasure, pain, fear and reward – reacts almost instantly. This may explain why we very rapidly detect animals in nature scenes and why we are more sensitive to changes in the movement and positioning of animals than we are to other objects, including objects as familiar as vehicles.

In infants, the animal bias shows up in a number of ways including more animation, vocal activity and social interaction when they are engaged with animals rather than toys.

None of this should be surprising as humans have been in the company of animals for two million years or more. Instantaneously obtaining and processing information about an animal’s intent was obviously very important for not becoming prey or being bitten, scratched, thumped or trampled. Not only that, the same ability could be turned to using animals as food and as indicators of where water, edible plants and other food sources might be located. Our ancestors were well served by their genetic disposition to pay close attention to animals.

About 14,000 years ago, these same ancestors found another use for animals, particularly for dogs. Bonding with dogs proved to very beneficial. Apart from providing protection and helping with hunting and shepherding, dogs proved to be great companions and promotors of mental health. Interacting with a friendly dog increases the production of oxytocin, a powerful “feel-good” hormone. A surge of oxytocin facilitates social bonding, co-operation, caring and empathy. It also decreases stress, depresses fear and enhances a sense of security, trust and pleasure. Not surprisingly the presence of a dog has been found to improve the effectiveness of therapeutic counselling (the “dog in the room” phenomenon).

Similar benefits come from interactions with cats and indeed other pets including horses. And it is almost certain that the “oxytocin response” is triggered, to some degree at least, in most of our benign encounters with non-domestic animals.

It is also the case that dogs get something of the oxytocin lift from an engagement with humans (maybe cats and other pets do as well).

Not a great deal is known about the specific animal attributes that attract our attention and elicit the oxytocin response. Common experience suggests that beauty of form, colour and movement is an obvious candidate. Superiority to humans in size, strength and physical skill is another. One attribute that has received some research attention is the “cuteness” factor.

We tend to prefer animals that we perceive as “cute”, an attribute we usually associate with babies, infants and young children. In scientific terms, cuteness is thought to be bound up with the “baby schema”, a set of features including large head, round face, high forehead, large eyes and small nose and mouth. In combination, these features automatically trigger nurturing, care-giving and empathic behaviour in both adults and children. Animals displaying these features, can look forward to being patted and cuddled on a regular basis.

Even though I have never seen one in the wild, I have a special place in my heart for snow leopards. These magnificent animals thrive in some of the most hostile landscapes on earth. I am fascinated by their beauty and awed by their capacity to survive. Needless to say, I was delighted when a recent blog post by Josh Gosh contained this link to a stunning video that features wonderful images of snow leopards. Take time to view it; you won’t be disappointed.

 

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This weekend, in cities around the world, people are marching in support of science and evidence-based policy making. As I write this, thousands of Australians have already taken part in the global March for Science. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to demonstrate in the same way, largely in response to President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to science and his scepticism about the causes and consequences of climate change.

The well-being of Australians is being jeopardised by much the same governmental devaluing of science and climate change “denialism”. Emperor Economics and his sidekicks, Prince Political Power Protection and Duke Dogmatic Ideology, are reigning supreme.

Protests against these threats to informed rationality are to be welcomed but it is staggering to think that such activity is necessary after 250 years of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

How are Trump and countless others of influence and power able to get away with making policies and decisions based on assumptions, opinions, gut-feelings and ideological prejudices rather than scientific (or factual) evidence?

Is it because too few of their constituents have the scientific literacy to question and challenge them? If the growing concern about school students’ declining performance and participation in science is anything to go by, this could be the case.

But let’s be realistic in our expectations. The formal study of science, especially at more advanced levels, is not for everyone. Nor is such study necessary in order to be scientifically literate in a very useful and powerful way. We can all “do” science.

This little girl (Zoe) is “doing” science.

She is seeking to understand her world by investigating, observing and testing it against what she already “knows” or believes. This is exactly what genuine science is about.

 

 

 

 

If she continues to do this through the formative years of childhood and adolescence, she will assemble the basic components of scientific literacy, namely:

  • a keen desire to investigate and learn about the physical and social world she occupies
  • an authentic but growing and malleable picture of that world
  • an understanding and appreciation of the kind of evidence (anchored to observation and objectively tested) that is needed to build that picture

Of these components, the last is the most important for navigating the sea of fake news, propaganda, dogma, spin, half-truths and lies that washes our way daily. I believe that a universal commitment to the principle of living under the guidance of sound evidence would make the world a much better place. And fostering that commitment in our children has to be a priority in their upbringing.

How far little ones like Zoe will travel on the road to scientific literacy depends on many factors, how they are nurtured in science at school being a key one. But parents (and grandparents) can also contribute significantly by –

  • sharing, supporting and encouraging their children’s “science” play
  • encouraging such play by locating their children in stimulating settings especially in the natural world
  • talking to their children about what they are seeing doing and discovering
  • encouraging observation, discussion and reflection when things of interest are encountered in daily life.
  • using questions to bring out the scientist in their children, such as

What is it doing? How does it feel? How are they alike? How are they different? What if…? How could we…? Why do you think…? Can you explain that?

It is worth noting that research from the USA suggests that most children form an opinion about science by the time they are seven years old. This is surely reason enough to expose children from a very early age to the scientific playgrounds to be found everywhere in the out-of-doors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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These are views of the greenspace I see from one of the balconies of my new apartment.

Having these views was a big reason for choosing the apartment in the first place. Even so, I feel very fortunate and privileged to have such greenery to look at every day.

Not all residents of medium density developments in our cities have such amenities to enjoy. After all, lawns and gardens take up space where apartments can be built. Where’s the financial sense in foregoing profits in order to provide a view of a bit of greenery?  Anyway, isn’t it the case that people don’t miss what they didn’t have to begin with. Besides, a few token plants and trees around the place will keep everyone happy.

While such cynical views may not be expressed openly, they might as well be. It is a rare apartment development these days that doesn’t occupy the entire block of land. And government regulators are doing little to curb the practice or to reserve land in areas of increasingly high population density for parks and gardens.

Evidence from the many studies of the relationship between green space and human health and well-being clearly shows how short-sighted, irresponsible and potentially damaging these policies and attitudes are.

Consider these research findings, for example:

  • People are happier and have lower mental distress when living in urban areas with more green space, especially biodiversity rich spaces.
  • Meeting one’s neighbour in a local park can help to build friendship and foster a sense of commonality, and can lay the groundwork for further socialising.
  • Green space in urban areas is associated with a long-term reduction in mortality (Proximity to green space helps people live longer).
  • People living close to (within 300 metres of) green space report better health, require fewer medications and are troubled less by anxiety and depression.
  • Green space can have beneficial therapeutic benefits for people suffering from mental illnesses and even reduce the risk of schizophrenia.
  • Access to green space can help to counter some of the risks to health associated with low socio-economic circumstances especially inadequate physical activity.
  • Access to green space can reduce childhood behavioural problems including hyperactivity disorders.
While everyone stands to benefit from having green space nearby, it is likely that children and disadvantaged people have most to gain.

I often wonder what it will take to awaken Australians and people elsewhere to the power for good that resides in urban nature (and nature in all its forms). I am not sure that writing about it achieves much, apart from warming the hearts of the converted. And I am not convinced that TV nature documentaries – even of the quality of Planet Earth II – have more than a transient impact on most people.

Certainly, there are signs of an awakening of sorts – most notably the actions being stirred by Richard Louv’s warnings about the epidemic of “nature deficit disorder” spreading through children of the First World. But even this awakening is struggling to find its way into the consciousness of society’s opinion shapers and policy makers. The movers and shakers are simply not being moved and shaken by a “nature narrative”. Even the most monumentally impacting of nature’s current narratives, climate change, is still being denied by some and heard without real understanding by many.

One major impediment, I think, is that nature has ceased to be personal for many citizens of Western societies. When something is personal it reaches beyond our minds to the depths of our emotions and values. When something is personal it is part of us, part of our sense of meaning and identity. We appropriate it to ourselves; we revel in it; we nurture it; we defend it. When it flourishes, we flourish; when it hurts we hurt.

A personal relationship is grounded in intimate experience – an “I-thou” rather than an “I-it” form of engagement. Our relationship with nature is no different – as scientific as well as anecdotal evidence clearly tells us.

What, then, has to be done to help people discover nature in a personally meaningful and significant way?  Perhaps the answer can be found by encouraging people like you (my valued readers) to tell how they (and you) formed a personal relationship with nature. There is a power in personal stories. Perhaps the way forward is to tap that power on behalf of ourselves and nature.

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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 his recently published book, world renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, demolishes the idea that we humans are a special species because we possess mental abilities not present in lower animals.

The long list of these abilities includes:

  • Language

    ladder-of-nature-the-mirror-test

    Chimp recognizing itself in a mirror

  • Tool making and use
  • Self-recognition
  • Anticipating the future and planning for it
  • Empathy
  • Political awareness (of status and alliances in social groups)
  • A sense of fairness
  • Co-operative behaviour
  • Passing on useful and desirable ways of behaviour (“culture” in other words)

But de Waals shows that all of these so-called uniquely human abilities turn out to have equivalent forms or precursors in other animals!

ladder-of-nature-bA video he used in a TED talk shows a pair of capuchin monkeys in adjoining cages offering a human experimenter a token in return for a piece of fruit. One monkey gets a much desired grape in return for its “work” in earning the token in the first place; the other gets a piece of cucumber, which capuchins are not so impressed by. The monkey that gets the cucumber looks across at the other monkey and its grape, immediately displaying outrage by throwing the cucumber at the experimenter and shaking the bars of its cage with frustration.

The peeved monkey was showing the very human response to not being treated fairly. In all human societies, the fairness principle is valued and taught, even if it is not always applied. It is a key feature of human psychology and morality. What the experiment with the capuchins shows is that something like this basic feature of human psychology and morality also exists in members of a primate lineage that separated from our own more than 40 million years ago.

And the presence of “superior” human mental attributes is not confined to animals that are relatively close to us in the evolutionary scheme of things. Elephants, for example, can classify humans by age, gender and language. New Caledonian crows make elaborate tools, shaping branches into pointed, barbed termite-extraction devices. Western scrub jays hide caches of food for later use – anticipating what they will need in the future, rather than acting on what they need now. Even the seemingly lowly octopus uses coconut shells as tools.

The findings of de Waal and others have reported put paid to the age-old concept of the “ladder of ladder-of-naturenature”, which has God on the top rung, angels a step below followed in order by men, women and children. Then came animals ranked from the noble beasts to the lowliest insects.

As well as being a quasi-scientific picture, the ladder of nature was also a moral and political one. It was only natural that creatures higher up would assume dominion over those lower down.

The ladder also implies the superiority of human intelligence. But science is discovering that intelligence or cognition in the natural world is more like a bush than a ladder. There is not a single, hierarchically ordered intelligence but many different “intelligences” that are not necessarily comparable to ours and may even be superior for certain purposes. Do you think you could remember the location of hundreds of buried acorns in the way squirrels can, for example? Or can you match the perception of your surroundings with the same exquisite precision as an echo-locating bat?

De Waal opens our minds to the idea that animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed and challenges us to accept that our minds and the minds of animals have far more in common than we may realise.

The title de Waal has given his book is, Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Even if we are smart enough, there is another question we need to ask: Are we humble enough?

Humility is not having grovelling or debasing thoughts about oneself. Rather, it is being free of pride and inordinate self-love in its many forms – selfish ambition, conceit, intolerance and closed-mindedness, to name a few. A lack of humility is the handmaiden of arrogance and arrogance coupled with ignorance is a major stumbling block to human progress on every front.

The ideological and social divisions that are so alarmingly obvious in today’s world are all underpinned by ignorance and arrogance – the one fuelling and sustaining the other. Arrogance obstructs empathy and a desire to understand the other; the resulting ignorance then opens the way to misunderstanding, intolerance, contempt, fear and often hate.

That is why humility is so important for human well-being and survival. It is equally crucial for our relationship with the natural world.

The Ladder of nature and the arrogant perception of human superiority that it fosters have to be totally expunged from our thinking and replaced with both intellectual and moral humility. Intellectual humility opens our minds and moral humility opens our hearts.

A good starting point for this transformation is to approach nature as one might approach a great teacher. Indeed, the natural world is one of life’s greatest teachers, if we know how to learn from it.

Jane Goodall, another world-renowned primatologist, helps us to understand what that means. She Wounda farewelling Jane Goodalltestifies that her research into chimpanzees, spanning 30 years, would not have succeeded had she not abandoned the aloof posture of the dispassionate scientist in favour of drawing as close to her subjects as possible. She loved the chimps, named them, and cultivated their trust and only then, she insists, was she able to learn from them and about them. Jane Goodall succeeded because she submitted herself humbly to world she sought to understand.

Few of us are seeking to relate to the natural world as scientists. But all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, stand to be enriched by approaching nature with humility. As Frans de Waal’s work demonstrates, such an approach keeps us alive to the possibility that our expectations about nature may be wrong and that we should look forward to being surprised.

More than this, it can also leave the way open for nature to teach us a great deal not only about itself but also about who and what we are.

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