Posts Tagged ‘social relationships’

This intriguing poster was recently emailed to me by one of my daughters.untitled

It is telling us that, even in the absence of modern communication technology, we can be “well connected” in forests and other natural environments.

I have two thoughts about the message of the poster. The first was how true it is!

Even before I had explored the science of humanity’s relationship with nature, I was aware from experience that being in nature fostered three kinds of connection:

  • with one’s inner self
  • with others, and
  • with the cosmos.

There is a full chapter in my book about these three connections and I have also written about them in earlier posts, examples being –

Solitude is good company

Wilderness and relationships

Nature and the hero’s journey of legend

Nature and the “higher self”

Nature is a great hostess

Nature – the great leveller and bonder

The cosmic connection

The three connections are of enormous personal benefit in and of themselves. They are also essential components of wellness – the state of being healthy and living “healthily” in all areas of our lives.

The second thought I had when I saw the poster was that, even without Hi-Fi (and other electronic technology), the trees and other plants making up the forest are also connected. Indeed, every tree and plant depicted in the poster would almost certainly be communicating with members of other species as well as with members of its own.

Some of this communication would be overground, via chemicals (and for some plants, sounds). The classic example is the release of volatile chemicals by plants that are being attacked by pests. These chemicals are detected by neighbouring plants spurring them to swing into defence mode either by accumulating chemicals that are toxic or at least noxious to the pests. Alternatively, the volatile chemicals attract predators that feed on the pests.

But the main arena of plant communication is underground via an information super highway made of fungal-networksfungi.

While mushrooms and toadstools are the familiar parts of fungi, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads called mycelia. It is now known that these threads act as a kind of underground internet linking the roots of plants, unlike as well as like. If you were standing in the forest in the poster, there could be several hundreds of kilometres of fungal fibres literally under your feet. Mycelia form intricate connections with all manner of plants, some separated by distances of tens of metres.

The networks are established as fungi colonise the roots of plants in order to form beneficial relationships labelled “mycorrhiza” (literally mushroom root) by botanists. In mycorrhizal associations, plants provide fungi with carbon-based sugars produced by photosynthesis while the fungi supply the plants with water and nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen gathered via their mycelia.

The fact that around 90% of land plants are woven into mycorrhizal fungal networks has required a radical re-think of how plants behave and how forests and other plant populations function. The idea that plants are remote, silent, self-serving individuals doesn’t hold anymore. Most plants form large and complex communities in which information, warning signal and protective chemicals as well as water and nutrients are exchanged. Some plants even help boost the immune systems of other plants.

In her ground breaking studies of North American forests, Professor Suzanne Simard,has discovered that trees actually help one another in times of need. She has observed, for example, that the more a Douglas fir became shaded in the summertime, the more it received some of the excess carbon from a neighbouring birch tree. Then later in Autumn, when the birch was losing its leaves and the fir had excess carbon (because it was still photosynthesising), the flow of carbon went the other way.

Based on observations such as these, Professor Simard argues that there is genuine communication – or “talk” as she is fond of saying – among trees and indeed other plants.

She also speaks of “mother” trees. These are older and larger trees that are located at hubs of fungal networks because they are richly connected to many other trees. Professor Simard has found that these older trees can recognise their own seedling offspring as kin and can favour those seedlings by linking them into fungal networks and even by discouraging other plants encroaching on their space.


The iconic Blue Gum Forest, Blackheath

It is highly likely that the same kind of communication and kinship relationship will be found in forests elsewhere in the world, including Australia. Because of the low nutrient level of most Australian soils, trees growing here stand to benefit a great deal from co-operating with one another. It would be extraordinary if research found that they did not.


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Imagine this scene –

  • a rock ledge overlooking a six metre almost vertical drop to a small rocky creek bed
  • a doubled climbing rope, anchored to a large tree, falls from the ledge to the creek
  • Julia, a largish, middle-aged woman in a climbing harness, is attached to the rope and is striving vainly to lean back in the harness and let the rope support her
  • a second person, obviously an instructor, is gently coaching her to trust the equipment, to keep her legs straight and to let the rest of her body slowly slide to the abseiling position
  • a third person (also an instructor) is at the foot of the drop holding the rope in readiness to help the woman control her descent
  • after struggling for several minutes to overcome her fear and let herself lean even a few degree backwards, the woman suddenly loses patience: “This is bloody ridiculous. Make me do it Les. Bully me!”

Yes, I am the Les to whom the order was addressed. The amusingly ironic thing is that Julia, a well-known political activist, human rights champion and all-round formidable campaigner was certainly NOT a person to be bullied. Needless to say, I disobeyed and resorted to plan B which involved a shorter and gentler rock face on which Julia could build trust in herself and her equipment.

Julia was one of the 500 or so people that passed through a beginning bushwalking and camping course

Backpack workshop

Backpack workshop

for adults with which I was heavily involved for over 25 years. Guided by the principle of “gradualism” (as distinct from the “into the deep end” approach), the course took people through a series of activities, beginning with an

This the way you build a fire

This is the way you build a fire


indoor introductory workshop and culminating in an overnight, moderate grade, full-pack bushwalk in the Blue Mountains National Park.

“What has abseiling to do with basic bushwalking and camping?” you ask.

“Nothing”, I once would have said, but my mind was changed by a chance occurrence on the very first presentation of the course.

This is what happened. With a view to underscoring the message that safety in outdoor activities is largely of one’s own making, my co-leaders and I hit upon the idea of illustrating the principle in a demonstration of abseiling. There was no intention to do other than show the course members safety procedures before and during an abseil. But when we had finished the exercise, one of the participants said, “I’d like to have a go at that”. And he did – successfully and without fuss – and, in doing so, encouraged almost everyone else in the group to follow his lead.

The group that returned from the abseiling site was noticeably different from the one that walked there an hour or two earlier. Morale and camaraderie had surged and one sensed a heightened motivation for the course and for bushwalking more generally. The sentiment seemed to be, “If we can manage an abseil, bushwalking and camping will be a breeze”.

Just a matter of walking backwards - down a cliff

Just a matter of walking backwards – down a cliff

This change was not lost on my co-leaders and me. It was clear that the abseiling “demonstration” had to be a fixed part of all future courses – to be conducted in the same way with the move “to give it a go” coming from the participants (which, quite remarkably, it always did).

I am sure that Julia was fully aware of the value of giving challenges a go. She knew intuitively what she stood to gain from walking backwards down that drop. On another occasion during the course, she had this to say (in her characteristically forthright way) to us course leaders:

There should be more courses like this for older people. Everything is done for the young these days. We have to stop older people bringing down the shutters.

Her urging not to bring down prematurely the shutters on life has stayed with me – indeed inspired me – ever since.

Nature-based activities, including those like bushwalking or hiking that are not usually associated with “adventure”, are especially good ways of keeping the shutters wide open.

  • They take us into a world that stimulates our mental faculties and emotions, sometimes very powerfully;
  • They increase our openness and resilience to novelty and the unexpected;
  • They help us to discover mental and physical resources within ourselves that we may not know we have;
  • They nurture friendship, foster empathy and co-operation in personal relationships;
  • They can help us to re-frame and resolve personal problems and issues – and even to give added meaning and purpose to life.

And you have more than my word for all of this. Susan, a course graduate who became one of my regular bushwalking companions, was kind enough to let me record some of her thoughts about the benefits she derived from walking in nature.

This is a summary of what she said:

  • From the physically challenging walks, she gained a sense of accomplishment and heightened self-esteem. The camaraderie that came from sharing challenges with others fostered a sense of belonging and of being accepted by the group. Interestingly, she had valuable periods of alone time even when walking with and in the security of a group.
  •  In addition to increasing her existing friendship network, she also saw her socialising in bushwalking as an important part of maintaining connections and engagement in her more senior years.
  •  Susan valued the non-competitive nature of bushwalking and appreciated very much the way the activity could encourage caring attitudes and behaviour.
  •  Her bushwalking also strengthened her sense of purpose in life and her desire to keep well (“I do not want to be a little old lady with osteoporosis”).
  •  Not surprisingly, Susan admitted to having a “craving” for nature, revelling in its beauty, tranquillity and peacefulness.    
Susan and friends

Susan and friends


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When the Sydney Morning Herald recently published a photo of a cute puppy with the caption, “Thiscute puppy puppy can change your thinking”, I was immediately intrigued. The accompanying news item reported that researchers at the University of New South Wales had used a photo of a puppy in a study to test whether or not the human brain makes use of unconscious information when making decisions.

It has long been believed that decisions, solutions to problems, insights and other smart mental activity can take place without the input of conscious analytical thought. Such behaviour is called intuition and all manner of people, including Albert Einstein, have claimed to have relied on it. But is intuition real? That’s the question which Galang Lufityanto and his colleagues at UNSW set out to answer.

They had their subjects observe a cloud of dots that looked a bit like “snow” on a TV screen and decide which way the dots were moving, to the left or right. They used some fancy gadgetry to send an emotionally toned image to one eye of their subjects – but in such a way that there was no consciousness of the image. The images that were used would reliably evoke either positive or negative emotion.

Now comes the clever bit. When a positive image was sent, the dots in the display moved in one direction but in the opposite direction when the image was negative. What this set up enabled the researchers to test was whether or not receiving the unconscious emotional guidance improved the decisions subjects made about the movement of the dots.

And it did. Subjects became more accurate, faster and confident on the task. For this to have happened, unconscious emotions must have been guiding decision making.

But where does the puppy figure in all of this? Well, a puppy image was one in the set used to trigger positive emotions. No surprise there. And you also won’t be surprised that among the negative images was one of a snake poised to strike and another of an attacking shark.

Although this study was concerned primarily with intuition, it has something very interesting to say about the human brain’s processing of information from nature. The study confirms that the brain can absorb such information subliminally and convert it into emotional signals that are capable of influencing learning and thinking.

As I read about this study, the “dog in the room” phenomenon came to mind. Put people together with a dog and they are likely to nicer to one another or put a dog in any everyday scene for that matter and the scene will be viewed more positively by an observer.

And it is not only animals that fire the “niceness” networks in our brains. Other features and objects from the natural world do so – beautiful and awe inspiring scenery, for example.

All of this fits nicely with the neurological studies showing that viewing typical urban and natural scenes activates remarkably different areas of our brains. A particularly notable finding is that, in contrast to natural scenes, urban scenes are much more likely to mobilise the brain’s alarm centre, the amygdala. The amygdala helps us to deal with dangers and threats to our well-being but it tends to do so by committing the brain to the flight or fight ( or stress) response at the expense of “non-urgent” brain activities, like solving problems, thinking creatively, and being empathic and socially open and agreeable.

What’s more, the amygdala is biased towards remembering negative experience and maintaining the brain in a state of vigilance and apprehension. An excessively busy amygdala can wire our brains to be anxious, impulsive, self-centred and unhappy. For that reason, neuropsychologist Rick Hansen says it is very important to expose our brain to positive information as frequently possible. Doing this builds neural pathways associated with positive states of mind, sociability, reflection and efficient problem solving.

Evidence supporting Hansen’s view is growing steadily. A recent study found, for example, that after four days of immersion in nature, newcomers to such an experience improved their performance on a creative, problem solving task by a full 50%. And there is even more compelling support for Hansen in the evidence that children progress faster academically in school settings where there is access to nature, and workers in “green” offices are likely to be more productive as well as less stressed and satisfied.

Perhaps you can explore the effect of nature on your own thinking by comparing your success with crosswords or Sudoku puzzles in two settings: indoors and outdoors in a garden or park. Or in a more serious vein, find if it helps to think about a troubling personal or work problem in a natural setting of some kind.1172774-young-blond-girl-sitting-thinking-in-a-forest

Man sitting in wheelchair in a garden

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My friend and loyal follower of Our Green Genes, Kate Rotherham is a writer based in north-east Victoria.  Her fiction has been published in magazines, literary journals and anthologies, including The Best Australian Stories.  ShKate's kids having a marshmallow bakee has been a social worker, a public servant in Thailand, an Outward Bound instructor, and she once walked from Canberra to Melbourne.  Kate writes in a small timber loft, finding inspiration in rural life and the curious wonderings of her four hilarious children (photos of whom have enlivened many of my posts).

Kate shares her perceptions of rural community life, a way of life which she and husband Roo have very mindfully chosen for themselves and their children. It is interesting to read Kate’s observations along with Richard Louv’s recent article, Restoring Peace: Six Ways Nature in Our Lives Can Reduce the Violence in Our World.  Most of Louv’s six ways have to do with relationships and community – “greater biodiversity in cities can increase social and family bonding”, for example. 

Gentle as they are, Kate’s reflections are a call to action. They remind us that improving and safeguarding community life – with the help of nature and otherwise – has to be a priority for our times. This is especially so for those of us who are locked into an urban existence.   

Thank you, Les, for inviting me to take over your little corner of the internet.

One hot, sticky afternoon in Grade 1, the permanently cheerful Miss Kidson rolled an enormous length of butchers paper across our classroom floor.   There was a road drawn up the middle, and both sides of the street were single story buildings, each neatly labelled; Newsagency, Butcher, Post Office, Hospital, Fire Station, School, Bank, Library. There was a ripple of shared wonder as we took it all in. ‘This,’ beamed Miss Kidson, ‘is a community’.

I loved the concept immediately.  I rolled the word around in my mouth, trying to get it right.  I was a little kid in a big city.  I had no idea where the fire station or the hospital was, they were somewhere ‘out there’ in a great sprawling metropolitan mystery. I craved this neat, ordered place where everything was lined up in one cute little street.

Each day, in small groups of four, we gathered around it. Our task was to tear up little pieces of coloured crepe paper, scrunch them into a ball and, using our pear-shaped pots of glue, stick them onto the shops and buildings. The Fire Station needed to be red, definitely.  The sky had to be blue, and the road black. Everything else was up for grabs as long as it could be negotiated within the realms of six-year-old diplomacy.   For weeks, in that last hot hour of the day, we lay quietly on the carpet, carefully creating a community.


A Travel Victoria photo

I now live in a rural setting, and my closest town is ten kilometres away, nestled in the hills.   The main street is wide and tree-lined, with deep paved gutters. There are no traffic lights or roundabouts. It is exactly as if that poster leapt off the paper and came to life, in three glorious dimensions. There really is a butcher, a hairdresser, a newsagent, a café, a bakery, a fire station, a bank, and a school. There’s also a historical society, a Tourism

Photo from Yackandandah's official website

Photo from Yackandandah’s official website

Information, an Op Shop, and other shops selling everything from antiques to boutique clothing. My adult self loves the real life version just as much as my six year old self loved the paper version.

But charming streets alone do not a community make. For me, it’s the intangibles that cement community.  The friendships and the networks, the various groups and the causes they promote, the volunteers, the celebrations, the coming together, the shared experiences and the very real connections.  It’s knowing people in a true sense; their strengths, their families and their passions.  It’s also about allowing yourself to be known.  Perhaps the ‘Cheers’ theme song puts it best – ‘sometimes it’s nice to go, where everybody knows your name’.

My community organises an annual folk festival, there’s a thriving arts organisation, endless sporting options, film nights, a local radio station and newspaper. There are groups for readers, bike riders, dramatists, even circus skills classes.  There’s a community garden, as well as a food swap initiative where residents share their extra produce. Sociologists would be tripping over themselves trying to analyse our ‘social capital’ which would fall somewhere on the scale between ‘extraordinary’ and ‘unbelievable’. Traffic and parking issues are non-existent here, yet excellent medical services and fantastic kindergarten, primary, secondary and tertiary education are all within a 30 minute radius.

When terrible things happen, and they do, our community takes a collective hit.  We stagger backwards and gasp for air.  Suddenly it is not a stranger’s face in the newspaper, but one of our own.  We know them because our lives are a constant tangle of interaction, at school gates, in doctors’ waiting rooms and in supermarket aisles. This is life in a small rural community, and sometimes it hurts. In empty days of desperate soul-crushing grief we visit, we cook, we talk and we hug.  We try and find a path through the senseless injustice of it all together.

I love the idea of town planners integrating nature into dense city living, maximising the value of every tree and making every blade of grass count. But where I live we don’t have to ration out our greenery.  Here, nature play with children is as simple as an afternoon splashing in the local creek, or sitting quietly to watch an echidna waddle across the back paddock. There is a deep richness and quality to country life that I wish city folks, swamped with harried crazy-busy lives and impossible mortgages, would stop to consider.KBa

As I walk down High Street, my little ones skipping ahead and behind me, we pass the newsagent, the bakery and the bank, stopping frequently to talk with friends.   And I smile realising I am now part of the community I started looking for a long time ago, when I first stuck a red blob of crepe paper on the Fire Station.

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Renowned Australian author, Geraldine Brooks, has made the provocative but valid point that humanityhigh rise apartments is undertaking the most monumental experiment in the history of evolutionary biology. As a species, we have evolved for an uncrowded life in the openness of natural environments, but we are now flocking to live in very different one – the dense and crowded environment of cities and towns.

This movement is abundantly clear to us in Australia – one of the world’s most urbanised countries – but the United Nations estimates that by 2050, 69% of all humans will be concentrated in urban centres.

This wouldn’t be happening if there weren’t enormous material, social and cultural advantages to urban life. There is no denying that the quality of life we enjoy is attributable in many ways to the urbanisation of our society.

So not surprisingly, there is currently great enthusiasm for expanding our cities outwards and upwards – especially upwards. Indeed, we can be forgiven for thinking that the goal of many politicians, planners and developers is to cram as many apartments or units as possible on every available piece of urban land. Forget about uncrowded openness – higher density is the new desirable, it seems.

But increasing housing and population density comes with hazards.

  • As the population of residential buildings increases, trust cooperativeness, friendliness and altruistic behaviour tend to decline. An interesting experimental demonstration of this comes from a study comparing the caring behaviour of university students living in halls or residence (low density), apartments (medium density) or multi-storey towers (high density). The researchers used a subtle technique to measure the students’ neighbourly concern. Stamped addressed envelopes were scattered inside the buildings to create the sense that the “letters” had been lost by fellow residents. The researchers found that, after an interval of four hours, 100% of the letters in the low-density housing had been posted, compared with 87% in the medium density building and 63% in the high-density building.
  • Overcrowding is up to 3-4 times more likely in apartments, flats and units than in separate houses. As the number of individuals sharing a given space increases, people have to work harder to co-ordinate their activities with others. Avoiding frustration, conflict and a sense of not being in control is more difficult under these conditions. Overcrowding is often chronically stressful and a trigger for depression, anger, aggression and social withdrawal.
  • Overcrowding can be particularly damaging for children. Living in high-density apartments restricts children’s physical activity, independent mobility and active play. An Austrian study  found, for example, that an alarming 93% of children living in centrally located high-rise flats had behavioural problems, much more than children living in houses.
  • Even without the added ingredient of overcrowding, urban density is hazardous to mental health. City dwellers have a 21% greater risk for anxiety disorders and 39% greater for mood disorders such as depression. A massive Swedish study of four million people found that the incidence of schizophrenia and depression was, respectively, 73% and 16% higher in the densest urban areas compared with rural regions.

Understanding the link between density and mental health is a work in progress, but a series of German studies puts the spotlight squarely on stress. These studies used healthy volunteers from rural and urban backgrounds (either born or currently living in cities). While their brains were being scanned, the volunteers experienced the stress of being negatively evaluated as they were attempting difficult mental arithmetic tasks.

A consistent and remarkable finding was that “rural brains” and “urban brains” processed the stress via different neural centres and pathways. Unlike the rural brains, the urban brains used a pathway that is dominated by the amygdala, a major source of the dark emotions of anxiety, fear and aversion. In other words, the urban brains performed as if they were primed to respond more negatively to stress.

A possible reason for this is that urban brains have less access to the positive stimulation and buffering effects of nature. As neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, points out, our brains need plenty of positive buffering because they tend to be shaped more readily by bad experiences rather than pleasant ones. They hold onto negative memories in a “velcro-like” way but are “teflon-like” where positive memories are concerned. This means our brains are disposed to deliver a pessimistic rather than an optimistic view of life.

There is strong evidence that contact with nature can ameliorate this tendency. A study of 350,000 people in the Netherlands, for example, found that the prevalence of depression and anxiety was significantly less for people living in areas with 90% of green space compared with those in areas with only 10%.

For me the message is a no-brainer: approach the densification of our cities with caution. Such densification is inevitable, of course, but let’s do it in ways that prevent damage to individual and community well-being.

  • Let’s seek and be guided by objective answers to the questions, when and how does bigger (or denser) in the urban residential landscape come to pose unacceptable risks to health and quality of life?
  • Let’s take with radical seriousness the case for greening our buildings, precincts and neighbourhoods (Let’s make all residential design “biophilic design”)
  • Let’s do everything we can to ensure that every housing development

– has ample attractive green spaces where people can socialise, garden and play.

– is friendly to children, adolescents, the elderly and shut-ins

  • Let’s fight for the preservation, conservation and enhancement of all existing urban green space and bushland

Perhaps this 700 unit, medium density development not far from my home will provide a model to follow by delivering on the promises contained in its billboards.

2014-09-04 15.12.162014-09-04 15.18.30

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Judging by reactions to one of my recent posts, I am not alone in being intrigued by the power of nature to trigger positive feelings towards others. I referred in the post to research showing that immediately after exposure to beautiful nature in the form of landscape photos and plant arrangements, people displayed heightened sociability and generosity.Sociality

And the story does not end there. Other research shows that nature can benefit relationships not only in the short-term but also in ways that are lasting. It does this by

  • helping us as individuals to embrace social values, such as empathy, thoughtfulness and caring, that have an enduring influence on our behaviour, and
  • creating conditions for healthy community life in the real world.

Values play a key role in human behaviour especially by shaping our long-term aspirations. According to the psychologists Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan, our life goals or aspirations fall into two major categories – extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic aspirations focus our attention on “products” that are not inherently rewarding but serve to secure rewards such as wealth, image and fame from external sources. By contrast, intrinsic aspirations point us towards goals that in themselves satisfy basic psychological needs such as affection, intimacy, personal growth and community membership. Clearly, intrinsic aspirations are more “other-oriented” or “prosocial” than extrinsic ones.

Studies done at the University of Rochester under the leadership of Netta Weinstein found that people who have sensuous, mindful and emotional interaction with natural scenes or living objects display stronger intrinsic aspirations.

This was more likely to be the case in people who

  • had been more deeply immersed in the nature experiences – they gave higher ranked responses to questionnaire items such as, “How completely were all your senses engaged?”, “How much did you feel you were in the places you saw?”,
  • reported a stronger sense of connection with nature as measured by the Connectedness to Nature Scale (If you are interested to see the questions comprising the scale, you will find them towards the end of the article) and
  • were more self-directing or autonomous when expressing themselves and making decisions.

These findings are associated with brief exposures to nature, making it likely that longer lasting effects arise in “real-life” settings, where the presence of nature can be richer and more sustained.

Consistent evidence that  this is the case comes from a series of studies conducted at the Robert Taylor Homes and a similar public housing development in Chicago. The Robert Taylor Homes are architecturally identical buildings (same size, layout, facilities, units, etc) in a line along a five km corridor. Each building is bordered on one side by a highway and railway line and on the opposite side by a municipal thoroughfare.

Originally each building was surrounded by grassland and trees but, over time, many of the green spaces have been asphalted over. This means that some of the buildings are surrounded by asphalt and concrete while others are still set in areas of grass and trees. As residents are allocated to the buildings on a random basis, conditions for a natural experiment have been created.

Robert Taylor Homes barren
Robert Taylor Homes green




Researchers from the University of Chicago have taken advantage of this unique situation to study the effects of nature’s presence on community well-being. Based on their extensive work, they report that living in proximity to greenery is associated with

  • lower rates of aggression
  • lower incidence of property and violent crime
  • greater sense of safety
  • greater use of outdoor space
  • more social networking
  • stronger neighbourhood ties
  • greater resilience in the face of life’s demands.

These are impressive findings, and coupled with what we know about the impact of nature on individual happiness, health and well-being, make a very strong case for bringing nature to our cities, especially to the buildings where we live.

But what are we seeing? – more and more barren  multi-storey apartments rising higher and higher above our suburbs. We may be solving urban housing shortages but at what cost to individual and community well-being. The irony is that, in packing people together physically, we are often making it harder for them to come together socially.

But the story is not all bad. There are enlightened urban planners and architects out there. This is the “vision” for Sydney’s Green Square, for example.Green%20Square_artists%20impression_2

And this is a housing development in Japan, one of the world’s most densely urbanised societies.Sustainable urban living



Where would you rather live – in the Japanese development or in one like this?high density housing

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A recent edition of the Sydney Morning Herald contained an article by Bill Farrelly in which he affirms that God is everywhere in the cosmos and human affairs. The article finishes with this flourish:

Tell me, non-believers, where does our appreciation of beauty come from?

Predictably, several letters to the editor followed. One from Stephen Jackson, summarily dismissed the notion that God has anything to do with beauty:

It is the most basic instinct of all creatures, including mankind, he wrote, to seek the strongest and the fittest, which in turn has evolved over time to be represented by the most beautiful. Beauty enhances survival rates, and it flows into all aspects of our lives to seek beauty, and therefore continuation and strengthening of the species, so our appreciation is little more than evolution at work. No divine intervention there.

But another letter writer, Julian Brown, debunks the evolution explanation on the grounds that humans are flexible, if not fickle, when it comes to feminine beauty (as if beauty in human form is representative of all natural beauty – which it clearly isn’t). He observes that:

Face decoration EuropeWhat we in the West regarded as a beautiful woman 200 years ago (and still is in much of the world) would be thought of as obese today.Face decoration Africa

I must say that I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the dated, simplistic and misguided ideas contained in the body of letters – not surprised because enjoying natural beauty, being one of our commonest pleasures, is easily taken for granted. We expect to encounter beauty in almost all forms of nature, including representations of it in pictures and photographs, and we are rarely disappointed.

But there is a great deal that is extraordinary about this ordinary experience. There is much more to natural beauty than meets the eye (ahem!). Our awareness of beauty is one of the most generous and important gifts of biophilia – our inherent bond with the “wildness” in which our species evolved.

There is some truth to Julian Brown’s assertion that fashions in feminine beauty change, but this is no basis for saying that everything about the perception of beauty is individualistic.

Being a response our brain makes, beauty is indeed “in the eye of the beholder”. The uniqueness of our personalities and life experiences ensures that no two of us will experience beauty in exactly the same way. But this does not mean that everything about beauty and the pleasure it gives is unique to the individual. Our tastes in beauty may differ, but a great deal of what is experienced as beauty in the world is shared. What is beautiful for you or me is likely to be beautiful for others as well.

This is particularly so where natural beauty is concerned. There is plenty of evidence showing that a landscape seen as beautiful by an Australian, for example, will likely be regarded in the same way by someone from the United States of America, Indonesia or Scandinavia. Contrary to what Julian Brown may think, people are more alike than different in judging beauty and ugliness.

Stephen Jackson is on firmer ground in arguing that our appreciation of beauty is “evolution at work” – although there is much more to this idea than is conveyed in the phrase, “the survival of the fittest”. But he is mistaken if he thinks that there is nothing more to be said on the matter.

There remains as much mystery as there is insight about the pathway by which the ability to experience beauty came to be part of our make-up. Evolution is the interplay of chance genetic change and natural selection (the retention of only those changes that enhance survival and reproduction in the prevailing environment). By its very nature, this is a highly unpredictable process with many possible directions and outcomes.

This means that the evolutionary pathway leading to our appreciation of beauty could have diverged at any one of countless points. But against the enormous odds it didn’t. Why it didn’t may be the result of chance, as many scientists would argue. But there are others, including A R Wallace the co-discover with Darwin of the principle of natural selection, John Polkinghorne, priest and former Cambridge professor of plasma physics, and Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, who think that there is more to it. Just what this “more” may be remains a mystery and a matter of speculation.

Adding to the wonder and mystery of the beauty response is its bountifulness. Our brains first evolved to associate beauty with those aspects of the natural environment that are directly or potentially beneficial, such as water, fruit and open woodland, and to regard as ugly objects ,like snakes and putrefying carcasses, that could do us harm. But our ability to perceive beauty now serves us in other, unexpected ways as well – sparking curiosity, inspiring creativity, stimulating empathy and so forth. Clearly, beauty impacts on the human mind in ways that range well beyond the sphere of physical survival and reproduction alone.

In his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt describes humans as being 90% chimp and 10% bee. The point he is making is that we are both individualists (chimps), who have evolved

This chimandbee should be  more chimp and less bee

This chimandbee should be more chimp and less bee

to pursue self-interest, and also colonists (bees) who are adapted to serving the basic interests of the groups we depend on. In other words, we are “groupish” as well as selfish. And, as I explained in my last post, empathy, helpfulness, generosity other prosocial behaviour, is stimulated by natural beauty. So it is that the amazingly rich beauty response has come to serve both the “bee” in us as well as the “chimp”.

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