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Posts Tagged ‘Nature and the brain’

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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This was the view from the tent my wife and I shared under the shadow of Mt Harmakh in Kashmir back when it was possible to travel safely in that now troubled region.

The water surging along the nullah right at our door made a constant low roar but we were completely untroubled by it. In fact, the sound was pleasantly soothing by day and soporific by night.

Something of this long-ago experience came back to me when I clicked on this link, got rid of the ad and played the video with my eyes closed. Try it for yourself and then decide what you think about this statement:

“When you listen to the tranquil sounds of nature and the great outdoors, you feel more relaxed.”

Most people would likely take that statement to be true, primarily because it makes sense intuitively. It may also be a “reality” that many have actually experienced.

But is it actually true? Can it be demonstrated scientifically? It seems likely that the answer to both questions will turn out to be, “Yes”. This is certainly the direction in which research evidence is pointing.

Some of this evidence comes from experimental studies in which subjects who had been stressed (by undertaking a difficult mental arithmetic task, for example) were then exposed to different auditory conditions including natural sounds such as birdsong, moving water and soft wind. The consistent message from these studies is that natural sounds are more effective in reducing the signs, symptoms and negative feelings of stress.

Other studies have shown that natural sounds are more effective than alternatives in reducing stress during surgical procedures.

Natural sounds may also hold the key to masking the distracting noise of conversation in open-plan office settings. Workers were found to perform better on a task requiring sustained attention when they were exposed to the sound of a mountain stream rather than a soundscape of artificial “white noise” and another of no masking noise at all. The sound of the stream also elicited more positive feelings about the work environment. By a very decisive margin, workers preferred the mountain stream sound to the standard white noise signal.

In a very recent study, researchers from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School investigated the effect of natural sounds on the workings of the brain. They did this by performing brain scans on subjects listening to artificial and natural soundscapes. Natural sounds were found to activate the network in the brain associated with the mind-wandering and reflective thinking that is experienced in moments of tranquillity (the default mode network). The study also found evidence that natural sound triggered the anti-stress, calming “rest-and-digest” system of the body. Interestingly, the amount of change in nervous system activity was dependent on the participants’ baseline state. Individuals who showed evidence of the greatest stress before starting the experiment showed the greatest bodily relaxation when listening to natural sounds,

Given the consistency of the evidence, it is fairly safe to assume that the human brain has evolved to find at least some natural sounds calming. According to evolutionary theory, this would have happened because sounds such as the gurgle of running water, the murmur of wind in trees, the song of birds and the roar of surf helped our ancestors identify safe, secure and supportive habitats. These were, for our ancestors, sounds of connectedness, affinity, intimacy and belonging – not consciously registered as such perhaps but deeply affecting none-the-less.Sounds roar of surf

And this is exactly the way these same sounds work for us – as subliminal reminders of our embeddedness in the natural world. They are the sounds of “home”.

So, as we hear and savour natural sounds and benefit from their soothing and restorative effects, let us also dwell on the awesome thought that what we are experiencing arises directly from our complete and timeless oneness with the whole of nature

 

 

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I am indebted to my bushwalking friend, Ross Norrie, for these magnificent photos.

Both were taken on the “roof of Australia”, the Main Range of the Snowy Mountains where Mt. Kosciuszko is located.

It is intriguing that we find such barren jumbles of rocks singularly attractive. The rocks in the photos are not part of universally loved “rocky” landscape features such as cliffs, canyons, mountain ridges and peaks. This means that they are not getting their appeal by way of association.  No – Ross’ photos elicit an emotional and aesthetic response to rock as rock and not rock as part of anything else.

What are we to make of this response? Is it telling us something important about rock, and indeed about ourselves?

I hope I can convince you that it is.

We know that rocks or stones have served symbolic and religious purposes from pre-historic times. In a great many of the world’s cultures, highly revered stones or stone monuments have spiritual or religious significance and form integral parts of what can be described as “sacred landscapes”.

Generally speaking, sacred features in the landscape come into being when humans acknowledge some form of spiritual presence or property. Even before there is any awareness or acknowledgment of a place’s sacredness, simply being in the place can elicit quite powerful emotions including awe and fear. I can recall, for example, an experience of unexpectedly coming upon a group of large granite tors in a relatively remote bushland clearing and immediately feeling a mixture of excitement and awe. Before I could violate the place by taking photos, my companion identified the place as an Aboriginal sacred site – rightly as we later learned.

Almost certainly, the behaviour we are talking about is universal – displayed by people regardless of geographic location, culture or historical time.

While science has not demonstrated this directly, the indirect evidence is compelling, especially evidence from what we know about the human brain’s capacity to obtain and use sensory information from the natural environment.

We humans possess visual prowess that is unsurpassed as far as detecting and making sense of patterns and shapes are concerned. Working together in bewilderingly complex ways, our eyes and brains help us to make sense of the world by enabling us to discover meaningful patterns with extraordinary efficiency, fidelity and flexibility.

Our pattern-detecting ability is so developed that we are able to see meaningful images where objectively (or mathematically) there are none – in, for example, many naturally occurring random configurations such as clouds, cracks in the ground, the surface of the Moon and, yes, rocks. As a case in point, it is not hard to guess what this rock in The Royal National Park south of Sydney is called.

The “creative” perception that enables you to see why “Eagle Rock” is so called is known as pareidolia.

Interestingly, when we are experiencing pareidolia, the activity in our brain is the same as when shapes and patterns in the form of actual objects are being observed.

The merest hint of a pattern or shape can be enough for the human brain to “see” something meaningful. This is because evolution has endowed us with brains that are fine-tuned to detect the naturally occurring patterns of nature. These patterns are familiar to all us:

  • Symmetry – one shape balanced by its inverse around an axis
  • Fractals
  • Spirals
  • Meanders – repeated flowing curves
  • Waves – in water and sand
  • Bubbles – as in froth or foam
  • Tessellations
  • Cracks
  • Spots and stripes

Because it is wired to detect patterns, our brain does so “fluently” and with minimum effort. Associated with the fluency is pleasure. When our brain is doing something it is meant to do, feel-good chemicals including dopamine are discharged, bringing the emotions of pleasure and reward into play. As a result, we find looking at natural patterns and the shapes they form an attractive and agreeable thing to do.

If they are anything, rocks are the repository of patterns – wonderful and varied patterns. That, surely,  is why we like them. Look again at Ross’ photos. See the repetition of flowing curves in the first and the repeated angular as well as the flowing lines in the second. And see in both the hint of fractal shapes along the jagged edges of the formations. There is also symmetry to be enjoyed in both, along with the emphatic repetition of cracks and spherical forms.

And if we were able to look more closely at the surfaces of Ross’ rocks, we might find more attractive patterns there – formed, for example, by different coloured crystals and chemicals in the rock or by colonising lichens and mosses.

To the question, What is it about rocks?, one answer is clear – aesthetic patterns and shapes.

Go rock!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The building process works like this:

 

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

 

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

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

The “grandeur” of nature, for example, can

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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