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We modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been around for much longer than was previously thought – 100,000 years longer in fact.

An international team of scientists recently reported the discovery in Morocco of human remains dating back 300,000 years. Previous fossil records have put the emergence of Homo sapiens in East Africa to about 200,000 years ago. It now seems probable that our species emerged not in a single East African “Garden of Eden” but in a number of places across eastern and northern Africa.

Three hundred thousand years ago, northern Africa was not the dry and arid land it is today. Because of a wetter climate, it was clothed in woodlands, forests and grasslands similar to those known to have existed in East Africa 100,000 years later.

These savannah-like environments are thought to be the ones in which modern humans evolved and to which, as a consequence, our brains and bodies are most comprehensively and efficiently adapted. In other words, we are most at home in natural environments. The savannah is for our species the Environment of Evolutionary “Adaptedness” or EEA. Each living species has its particular EEA and the total or even partial loss of the EEA means extinction unless the species can adapt to any significant environmental changes.

Compared with our ancestors of 300,000 years ago, we 21st century humans are living in very different environments.  For the more than 50 per cent of us living in towns and cities, the most obvious difference has to do with geometry. Ours is mainly a world of smooth lines, regular shapes, simplicity of form and symmetry. It is principally a rectilinear world that our forebears could never have imagined.

Theirs, in contrast, was largely a world of raggedness, irregularity, complexity and apparent chaos. The familiar Euclidian geometry that can be used to describe urban environment is much less applicable to the natural world. For that world a very different geometry – fractal geometry – is also required.

Fractals are created by patterns that recur on finer and finer scales meaning that a fractal object looks very similar whether it is viewed from some distance away, close up or anywhere in between.

Fractals are readily observed in tree branches like the ones shown in the accompanying figure (which originally appeared in a research article). The red rectangles show the same tangle of branches from three different distances. While the three images are not identical, they are remarkable similar.

A better gauge of the “self-similarity” of the three views is obtained using an analytical procedure that produces a measurement called a “D”. A smooth line, which has no fractal structure, has a D value of 1 while a completely filled space, which also has no fractal structure, has a D value of 2. Once a line begins to repeat itself, it starts to occupy space and its D value falls between 1 and 2. The D value of the three images of the branching limb is the same even though the patterns formed by the branches vary slightly.

As more fine detail is added to a fractal mix, more of the space is filled and the value of D moves closer to 2, as a photo which I received recently illustrates very nicely.

D values for some common natural features are:

Coastlines                           1.05 – 1.52clouds

Woody plants and trees  1.28 – 1.90

Waves                                 1.30

Clouds                                 1.30 – 1.33

Snowflakes                        1.70

 

I have risked boring you to sobs with this technical excursion into fractals because I want to share with you some recent discoveries that illustrate how wondrously our brains have been shaped by nature.

The ability to see and make sense of fractal objects in nature was central to the survival of our species. Without it, the complexity of nature would have been mentally (and emotionally) overwhelming. But millions of years of evolution produced a brain that could “decode” nature’s fractal language and extract the information needed to solve the problems of survival and reproduction.

Because the move by modern humans from natural to urban habitats started only a matter of a few thousand years ago, we remain creatures of the wild in terms of evolutionary development. As a consequence, the ability to respond to fractal objects endures as part of our make-up.

Studies of this response have provided several arresting findings:

  • Fractal objects appeal to our senses and many elicit aesthetic pleasure (or the “beauty buzz”). Such was the genius of the artist, Jackson Pollock, that he was able to create fractal masterpieces. Inspired by the fractal patterns he observed from the verandah of his house on Long Island, New York State (The house in the top image was his), he developed his drip and scatter painting technique to capture what he saw. Typically, he would proceed by creating relatively dense clusters of lines joined by longer sweeping lines. Then, often after a period of days, he would return and add finer and finer details. D analyses have confirmed that the images produced in this way are indeed fractal in nature. While Pollock’s earlier works had low D values (e.g. 1.3), his later works, like the one shown here, had higher values (in the order of 1.7 – 1.9). This is interesting because studies have shown that fractal objects in the mid-range of D values are generally found to be most attractive (the “Goldilocks” factor again). Perhaps the extra “challenge” of Pollock’s later paintings added to their artistic appeal.
  • There is an extraordinary parallelism between fractal forms in nature and the way the human eye moves when observing them. Maps of these eye movements also turn out to be fractal in structure. Why this is so is still a matter of speculation but it may have something to do with the information gathering efficiency of scanning patterns that move from larger to smaller features (Just as Pollock did when painting). Interestingly, animal grazing patterns sometimes take on the same whole-to-part, fractal organization.
  • The brain is both relaxed and busy when observing fractals. It is thought that when our brain is doing things it is wired to do, less effort and energy are involved. The concept of “fluency” is often used to describe non-demanding mental processing of this kind. This has led some researchers to predict that when our brain is processing fractals, the visual receiving and interpreting parts of our brain will be active while the parts of the brain to do with planning, executive control and concentrating will be in a more “free-wheeling”, relaxed mode. Studies using a physiological measure of stress and brain monitoring procedures report findings squarely supporting this prediction.

These are particularly intriguing discoveries in my view because they testify to the exquisite detail, subtlety, economy and efficiency with which evolutionary mechanisms have matched the human brain to the natural world. They also serve as a powerful reminder that if we are fully to understand ourselves and our behaviour, we need to understand the full scope and depth of nature’s imprint on the functioning of our brain. And we are not simply talking about “survival” behaviour. Just as Pollock’s art demonstrates, this imprint is to be found in the most sophisticated forms of human cultural, social and ethical behaviour. We cannot ignore the legacy of our species’ sojourn in nature – in its EEA – nor should we want to. It is a legacy to be embraced wholeheartedly because, as I argue in my book, it is a precious legacy.

 

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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.

what-is-it-about-caves-kitchen-in-darks-cavekitchen-in-darks-cave

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Ask any professional garden designer or landscape architect about building garden paths, and I am confident that they will recommend including a curve or two wherever possible. The reason is simple: people usually find a winding path more attractive than a straight one.

Straighten this path out in your mind’s eye and compare the two images. Which do you prefer? Attractive path b

It is intriguing how the slightly curving stone path with its flanking vegetation makes this potentially dull side-passage into a place of interest and beauty.

 

 

 

See what the curve does to this boardwalk through mangroves.

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P1180322_1024

 

 

 

 

 

Do you agree that it does a good job of integrating the engineered structure, the boardwalk, into its natural surroundings? You may also sense that the curved section is easier on the eye than the straight or rectilinear one.

This is likely to be your experience because human eyes and brains find rounded shapes easier (and more pleasurable) to process. Corners and sharp angles require more effort. In fact, angles can be a turn-off. One reason why spiders (even harmless Spiderones) evoke disgust and fear in many people is the angularity of their legs. Other reasons are their generally drab colour and their unpredictable movement.

Here is a diagram that nicely illustrates the point about curves. Which of the pathways between the boxes do you find easier to follow – the one with the curves or the one with the angles?

rounded-diagram-edges

Do you find that your eyes are led smoothly on the curved path but not on the angled one? But there is much more to the attractiveness of curved pathways than easy visual processing.

If you compare again the two images of the boardwalk, you are likely to feel that the curved one is the more inviting. You can easily imagine that if you were actually on the boardwalk, you would be drawn to follow it round the curve – not simply to take in more of what you can already see, but to engage what you can’t see.

The appeal of the curve lies largely in the sense of mystery it creates. As your gaze moves along the curved path, you get a glimpse of a vista beyond, but information about this vista is hidden from us by the bend itself, as well as by the distant trees. Therein lies the element of mystery – the feeling that we could gather new information about the vista and other things by following the path and looking around the bend. To secure this new information, we would have to move from our present vantage point to a new one. We would have to do some exploring in other words.

Mystery in a non-threatening form is a prime motivator of exploration, especially when we are out and about in nature. For humans, exploration has been and remains a very important response. It satisfies our basic need to understand our environment – for survival purposes and to satisfy our brains’ insatiable need for the stimulation of novelty and change.

A natural or constructed path, especially one that winds or curves, is a common cue forBulga%20Denis exploration. And a path or a riverbank that can be followed into the distance can greatly increase the appeal of a landscape.

That is why curving paths, rivers and roads are found in landscape art across the world. Their impact is particularly potent if the scene suggests that a fertile valley or cool mountains might be where the path leads.

 

Landscape paintingLandscape painting b

 

 

 

 

 

We are usually not conscious of the influence of “curviness” on our feelings, actions, attitudes and even our values. The same is true for angles, flowers and many other features, objects and symbols that make up the fabric of the world we experience. Subconscious influences like these affect our thinking and behaviour in many unexpected ways. You can find many more examples in Adam Alter’s fascinating book, Drunk Tank Pink.

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This is a photo of “America’s most wanted painting”.America's favorite painting

The painting is the work of two Russian émigré artists – Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. More precisely, the paint was applied by the two artists but the content of the painting was decided in a very interesting and controversial way.

Komar and Melamid commissioned a professional survey company to undertake a scientific nationwide inquiry into “what Americans want in art.” A thousand adult Americans representing both sexes and a variety of geographic, ethnic, and income groups were asked in a telephone survey about their preferences for colours, size, subject matter, and treatment used in paintings. The questions were wide-ranging and probed details, e.g.,

“If you had to name one colour as your favourite colour — the colour you would like to see stand out in a painting you would consider buying for your home, for example — which colour would it be?” On the whole, would you say that you prefer seeing paintings of wild animals, like lions, giraffes, or deer, or that you prefer paintings of domestic animals?”

When the results were in and the numbers crunched, Komar and Melamid found such strong agreement that it was possible to capture all of the most liked features in a single painting – the painting above, in fact, complete with the yawning hippopotamus (Can you spot it?).

Similar surveys carried out in nine other countries — Russia, Ukraine, France, Kenya, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Turkey, and China — revealed surprisingly similar preferences. Komar and Melamid made paintings using the most wanted features, presenting them in an exhibition and eventually a book. The pictures differed only in small details (e.g., a large hippopotamus and Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, a water buffalo and rice paddies in China, and groups of playing children in Turkey). Everywhere the preferred setting was an idealized blue landscape like the one illustrated.

Komar and Melamid’s attempt to describe what Americans (and people from other cultures) want in art received a mixed reception to say the least. Some commentators even thought that the two artists were “having a joke”.

Whether they were or not, there is something very intriguing about their paintings. The preferences they embody match very closely those that show up constantly in more conventional studies of people’s responses to natural scenery – preferences for naturalness, blueness, vegetation, water and so forth.

In fact, you could use “America’s most wanted painting” as a guide to choosing and understanding the kind of natural scenery that will almost certainly give you pleasure and other psychological benefits.

But for a more detailed guide, I suggest you use the following list of features. The list is based mainly on the extensive research work of Dr Andrew Lothian of Scenic Solutions, based in Adelaide.

Naturalness – having the appearance of unspoiled nature in

  • naturally occurring landscapes, e.g., coasts, mountains, lakes, bushlands of native trees and vegetation
  • created park like landscapes

Water

  • still, especially in expansive open forms, such as lakes, bays, lagoons, with long natural scenic edges and free of discolouration and pollution (Swamps and wetlands are unlikely to be as appealing)
  • moving in the form of waterfalls, cascades and smaller (rather than immense and thundering) rapids
  • with reflections

 

 

 

 

 

Landforms –

  • steep and high mountains (apart perhaps from those associated with aridity and roughness)
  • rolling and/or receding hills
  • undeveloped coastal headlands, cliffs, beaches and bays
  • lines of high cliffs

IMG_1198

Trees –

  • substantial, tall, thick, healthy, aged, crooked trunks and growing naturally (not changed by pruning or cropping)
  • broad canopy

Forests –

  • of moderate density with spaciousness of openings and plenty of visible groundcover
  • with a mixture of species
  • free of any signs of cutting, clearing, slashing and other evidence of economic management

Diversity –of

  • landforms
  • water forms
  • vegetation (species, colours and textures)

Sound IMG_1016

  • birdsong
  • moving water

Wildlife – native especially

Mystery – the sense of there being interesting things to discover, induced by such things as

  • a path or stream disappearing around a bend
  • the suggestion of hidden spaces in a garden, among rocks, or in a copse of trees for example.

The sky under various conditions (its “blueness” in particular) and clouds could be added to the list but they seem to function as a backdrop to the landscape rather than being part of it.

Why not use the list to seek out natural and created scenic spots within visiting distance of your place? This is another practical and valuable connecting-with-nature strategy.  

 

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If you were in this scene, standing on the rock shelf in the foreground, it’s a safe bet that you would be feeling relaxed and mentally refreshed.

This spot is an example of what Stephen and Rachel Kaplan would call a “restorative environment” because it:

  • gives us the feeling of being “away from it all” or at a distance from daily life – remarkably the spot is only a kilometre or so from the southern suburbs of Sydney,
  • is full of “fascination”, with things that attract our attention without being exhausting
  • is easy to understand because it “fits in” with what we already know about natural environments, and
  • allows us to engage in activities that we would want to do there like walking, swimming, photographing or just looking.

Time spent in such a spot helps us to put our mental house in order – clarifying and ordering thoughts and reflecting on personal concerns, goals and priorities. It also relieves the concentrated attention fatigue that is an inescapable part of urban life. From the moment we wake to when we fall to sleep at night, we constantly have to pay attention in order to cope and even survive.

The Kaplans have developed their Attention Restoration Theory (ART) to explain why natural scenes are superior to any other in restoring concentration, increasing mental energy and reducing the stress of information overload. “Fascination” is a key concept in the theory. We are “fascinated” when we find ourselves involuntarily paying attention to something. The mental “muscles” we use when we force ourselves to pay attention or concentrate are not involved when we are fascinated. When we are looking at a scene like the one in the photo, we are giving our senses and brain the chance to recover from attention fatigue.

Why we respond to nature with fascination is not known for certain but it seems likely that evolution has prewired our brains to absorb information about nature easily. In contrast our brains have to work harder where information from “non-natural” environments, like cities and towns, is concerned.

While visiting “real” nature is the ideal way to find relation and restoration, it is not the only option. There are “restorative environments” in all sorts of places, parks and gardens, for example. Here’s one of the places I go in my own garden for a spot of R & R (when it’s not being used by other members of the family, of course).

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One of my favourite quotes is this one from Timothy Beatley, a leader in the greening of cities movement, “Few elixirs have the power and punch to heal, restore, and rejuvenate the way that nature can”.

I was reminded of this quote recently when I came across a report of an experimental investigation of the effects of indoor plants on office workers’ well-being.

Staff who had plants (like the Dracaena in the photo) placed in their offices showed reductions in stress levels, negative feelings and fatigue in the order of 30 to 60%, while those with no plants recorded increases in stress and negativity of 20 to 40%, over the three-month test period. The effects of different numbers of plants were compared and most interestingly, just one office plant was enough to make the difference.

These results line up with those from a number of other studies, several of which also show that the presence of pot plants in offices leads to greater productivity and work satisfaction.

The power of greenery to reduce stress is well established so it is not surprising that pot plants do this for office workers. But the fact that the presence of indoor plants also lifts mood and reduces fatigue may not be as widely appreciated.

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have spent 30 years studying the link between nature and recovery from fatigue. They have shown that greenery is particularly effective in reducing the fatigue that follows periods of concentrated attention. Working at a computer, driving a vehicle and even negotiating a busy shopping centre are all situations that produce concentrated attention fatigue. You are probably familiar with the symptoms – tiredness, loss of concentration and irritability.

The Kaplans argue that nature restores tired eyes and brains by allowing us to switch from “unnatural”, directed or focussed attention to the “natural” and non-demanding attention we use when we are looking at natural greenery. We do not force ourselves to pay attention to nature. We do that effortlessly because that is what our senses and our brain have evolved to do. The differences between the two forms of attention lie at the core of what the Kaplans call their Attention Restoration Theory (ART).

The theory is supported by evidence for countless studies. That is why I place restoration, along with the beauty buzz and relaxation (stress reduction), among the “gifts” of biophilia.

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