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Archive for the ‘Well-being’ Category

“I wish I had let myself be happier”.

This was one of the five common regrets of dying people as reported by palliative care nurse, Bonnie Ware, (see my last post).

The message for us is obvious – make and take as many opportunities as we can to be happy.

Straightforward as it may seem, this message raises the two age-old questions: What is happiness? and How do we achieve it?

Philosophers and psychologists have traditionally thought about happiness and its attainment it in one of two ways. The oldest point of view is that happiness is experiencing more pleasure than pain, so finding happiness involves maximising pleasure and minimising pain.

This is the hedonistic or what Martin Seligman calls the “pleasant life” view of happiness. Happy people, according to this perspective, are strong on fun-seeking, satisfying desires and avoiding unpleasantness (pain).

The second and more recent standpoint argues that happiness is all about achieving fulfilment, satisfaction and meaning in life. This is referred to as the eudiamonistic (eu = good; daimon = spirit) view of happiness because it has to do with personal growth and the realization of potential.

There are two variations on the eudiamonistic theme: desire theory and objective list theory. According to desire theory, happiness is a matter of getting what you want without regard to the worthiness or otherwise of what is desired. Desire theory and hedonism overlap when what we want is lots of pleasure and little pain. But desire theory goes further by holding that fulfilling a desire contributes to happiness regardless of the pleasure (or pain) involved. A climber on top of Mt Everest can be very happy even though she is exhausted, frost-bitten and uncertain about the descent. Desire theory is the “good life” view of happiness and is conspicuously on display in consumerism.

Objective list theory holds that happiness resides in the pursuit of goals that are objectively judged to be worthwhile – career success, friendship, relief of poverty and kindness to others, for example. Such goals are transcendent in the sense that they are larger and more worthwhile than just the self’s pleasures and desires. The objective list theory gives us the “meaningful life” view of happiness.

Seligman, accepts that each of the three forms of happiness are genuine but insists that “authentic happiness” comprises all three. He says that only by experiencing the three can we lay claim to living the “full life”.

We don’t need research to tell us that good health is a powerful contributor to happiness in all its forms. This is intuitively obvious. But research has identified other factors such as income level (but only up to the point beyond which each additional dollar makes no difference), education, marital status, volunteering, religious faith and physical attractiveness.

Matching the most significant of these is another that may surprise you – “nature connectedness” (NC). Just as we all differ on personality traits such as extraversion, conscientiousness and openness, we differ on the degree to which we feel connected with the natural world. People with a strong sense of connection to nature feel a kinship with animals and plants and think of the natural world as a community to which they belong. They spend more time in the out-of-doors, engage in nature conservation activities and practices and exhibit a high degree of concern about the human impact on planetary health.

Before reading on, please click on this link and run the immensely entertaining video to watch NC on display – in quite small children as well as adults. In fact, we are all born with the biological foundations of NC but what is built on these foundations depends very much on life experiences and culture. Just like many other characteristics of personality, NC is the product of heredity and environment – nature and nurture – working together.

Several well-tested measures of NC have been developed. This has paved the way for research into NC’s relationship with other aspects of personality and behaviour including happiness.

The study of the link between NC and happiness has attracted quite a deal of research attention, to the extent that a recent review  of the research was able to integrate the findings of no fewer than 21 scientifically sound studies. The review pooled data from the 21 studies in such a way as to extract findings that were reflective of all the studies combined. What this means is that we have findings effectively from a sample of over 8,500 subjects, of both genders, aged from 19 to 63 years, with diverse educational backgrounds and from a range of North American, European and Asian countries. The findings also relate to both hedonistic and eudaimonistic happiness as measures of either or both were used in the studies.

The general picture that emerged from the review is that people who are more connected with nature experience more positive emotions, vitality (get-up-go) and satisfaction with life. Although in measurement terms, the associations were small they were of a similar size to those reported for the other known contributors to happiness mentioned earlier – income, education, volunteering, etc. Interestingly, NC’s strongest association was with vitality, which probably straddles both the two main types of happiness.

The broad conclusion of the review is that being connected with nature and feeling happy are linked. But it has yet to be established how the link works. One possible path is that a high level of NC makes us more open and emotionally responsive to nature’s beauty, awesomeness and tranquillity. There is indeed some evidence for this . And of course, people who are highly connected with nature are also more likely to engage in outdoor activities that are enjoyable and rewarding.

Since strong NC is an ingredient of happiness it would be great if we knew for certain how NC is best nurtured. A broad brush theory is that NC develops as a consequence of engaging with nature in pleasurable and rewarding ways. But that theory needs to tested and refined to account for differences in people’s make-up, life experiences and circumstances.

Do you feel you have a strong NC? If so, how did you get it? Answers to the second question would be really worth sharing, don’t you agree? (In thinking about the first question, you might care to click on this link and scroll down to where the items of the Connectedness to Nature Scale are listed. If you decide to try the scale, remember that for the items marked “reverse”, 1 is scored 5, 2 is sored 4, and so on. The closer your total score is to 70, the stronger is your connection to nature.)

 

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I am not really a New Year’s resolution person, but an article  and book by Bronnie Ware got me thinking that there are some resolutions really worth making and keeping. A palliative care nurse of longstanding, Bronnie has accompanied many people through the last weeks of their lives. Many of these times, she says were “incredibly special” – times of growth and positive change as well as times of emotional distress.

It was Bronnie’s practice to ask her patients about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently. She found that five themes repeatedly came through the replies:

  • I wish I’d the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard (A regret from almost every male patient).
  • I wish I’d the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

It is easy to draw personal resolutions of real substance and significance from each of these themes. When I did this for myself, I also had in mind a comment my friend Tory Hughes made when I asked her why people were retreating from nature and missing out on so much pleasure, happiness, personal fulfilment and friendship as a result. According to Tory, it is because people have difficulty giving themselves permission to do otherwise. Real and perceived work, social and family obligations and pressures get in the way of doing things that really matter for oneself (and those dear to us), including connecting with nature.

In addition to identifying the obvious general guidelines that are suggested by the themes, I also pondered how the themes could help us rethink our day-to-day relationship with nature. The result is a kind of personal mission statement.

I give myself permission to:

  • acknowledge my need for nature and to give priority to meeting that need;
  • work less and “play” more in natural environments (especially with my family and friends);
  • find emotional stimulation and expressive outlets in nature;
  • spend more leisure time with others in natural settings; and
  • find pleasure and joy in natural places and the things of nature.

I sometimes think that sharing such thoughts – with a view to promoting engagement with nature – is as productive as whistling in the wind. But then along comes evidence that restores my belief that people’s desire for nature, though muted in many cases, is alive and well.

Just this week, for example, the press carried a report of a government survey which asked participants, all drawn from across the suburbs of Sydney, to rank the characteristics of their area that they most valued.

The areas surveyed differed markedly in the mix of built and green spaces, some were much more endowed with urban bushland or parks. But across all areas, the attribute most valued was “elements of the natural environment”, or the areas natural features such as views, vegetation, topography, water and wildlife. Not surprisingly, this attribute was most likely to top the list in the best endowed areas.

These findings echo those of many other similar surveys, all sending the clear message – people want to have nature in their lives. Even though they may not always realise it, this desire is part of their genetic heritage, a universal urge prompting them to seek that which is their birthright.

Happy New Year in and out of nature.

 

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You may be as surprised as I was to learn that there is a connection between the damaging social inequality characteristic of most western societies and people’s concern for nature. Nature is losing out in those societies where the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is widening (as it is in most first-world and some developing countries). Why this is so is still being investigated but research already indicates that personal and social values are involved.

Driven by an obsession with production and consumption, western societies have embraced values that are both socially divisive and environmentally prejudicial. These values are the antithesis of those that underpinned the survival of our species through thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years. These “primal” or “natural” values are those that safeguarded group cohesion and the equitable sharing of food and other essential resources. The successful hunter–gather societies were (and indeed still are) egalitarian rather than hierarchical. Most modern societies comprise hierarchically ordered groups – a few, small and powerful “have” groups at the top of the pile, more, larger and powerless “have-not” groups at the bottom, with other groups of varying affluence and power strung out between.

According to the proponents of “social dominance theory”, the affluent and powerful groups in society seek to preserve their status by manoeuvring politically and otherwise to defend and even increase their affluence and power. Other groups in society are seen as “inferior” and less worthy of the “good life”. We are seeing the consequences of this mind-set and its underlying values in the flowering of far right politics, the rampant distrust of political and corporate power brokers and the growing acceptance of bigotry, racism and discrimination.

When members of a society embrace the social dominance mind-set, concern for others and compassion are casualties.  Hunter-gatherer societies go out of their way to prevent this happening. The Ju/’hoansi (pronounced Dju-kwa-si) people of the Kalahari Desert, for example, are “fiercely egalitarian and uncompromisingly committed to sharing. They regard selfishness with hostility and are strongly opposed to self-promotion and arrogance. As life in Ju/’hoansi communities is very public, the close and constant scrutiny for violation of these values is both possible and effective. The communities also employ elaborate practices to keep egos in check. These practices include downplaying the value of a hunter’s kill, making self-effacing comments, using put-downs and giving back-handed compliments. They have no formal leadership institutions. Men and women enjoy equal decision-making powers, children play largely non-competitive games in mixed age groups, and the elderly, while treated with great affection, are not afforded any special privileges.

All of this discourages the accumulation of wealth and influence, and the over-exploitation of the environment. Unsurprisingly, traditional Ju/’hoansi communities are generally carefree, harmonious and co-operative and have a low incidence of depression, anxiety, hostility and aggression. It should also come as no surprise that the Ju/’hoansi are part of one of most stable, enduring, successful and sustainable societies that has ever existed. Genomic and archaeological evidence indicates that they have been around for at least 150,000 years, having navigated the climatic and other crises that decimated many other human populations.

As well as living compassionately and sustainably with one another, the Ju/’hoansi are masters of living compassionately and sustainably with nature. Their desert habitat in southern Africa is one of the few regions on earth where multiple species of megafauna have survived the coming of humans. The Ju/’hoansi still make use of over 150 plant species and are able to track and trap virtually any animal they choose to. Despite their extraordinary skills, they have only ever worked to meet their immediate needs (typically for about 15 hours per week), have not stored surpluses, and have never harvested more than they could eat in the short term. The Ju/’hoansi clearly do not comply with the assumption of modern economic theory that people always have wants beyond their means (the so-called “problem of scarcity”); the Ju/’hoansi have few wants and ample means to meet them. This has prompted anthropologists to dub them, “the original affluent society”. But theirs is “affluence without abundance”.

Even though Ju/’hoansi society could never be considered a blueprint for our own, we would be stupid not to draw lessons from their way of life and particularly their egalitarianism. While egalitarianism and self-interest can co-exist, the empathic, and indeed compassionate, concern for others is a strong driver of egalitarianism. To value egalitarianism, therefore, is to value empathy and compassion.

In the social dominance mindset, compassion struggles to have a significant influence. As a consequence a concern for others and altruistic behaviour are likely to be muted. And the consequences may not stop there. German researchers recently reported studies showing not only that compassion marches hand in hand with a concern for nature but also that the relationship is causal – increase compassion and nature also benefits.

These findings may help to explain the connection I referred to at the beginning of this post –  between social inequality and a diminished concern for nature.

The strongest evidence we have of this connection comes from a survey of 4500 participants from 25 countries. The survey measured social dominance mindset with a questionnaire that requires respondents to declare the strength of their agreement or disagreement with a series of statements such as, “An ideal society requires some groups to be on top and others to be at the bottom”, and “Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups”. The resulting score indicates the respondent’s “social dominance orientation” or SDO (Follow this link to discover your SDO).Participants in the survey were also asked about their environmental “intentions”, whether, for example, they would sign a petition in support of environmental protection, or try to reduce their carbon footprint by cycling or walking instead of driving.

The survey found a clear association between SDO and environmental intentions – a high SDO made a person less likely to take pro-environment actions. In other words, people who hold altruistic values (or are strong on compassion) and who want to achieve equality in society tend to be more concerned about the environment. Although this is a descriptive finding, the scale of the study from which it comes makes it quite robust.

Perhaps working to make a society more egalitarian could be a way of strengthening its member’s connection to nature as well as their commitment to environmental protection. An idea worth thinking about, I believe.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Research

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