Sunbeams shining through a forest

Enjoying Nature

There were no psychologists to right the boat the last time we went overboard for nature. There was Wordsworth, lamenting that “the world [of affairs] is too much with us”, and there were brilliant chemists, physicists and astronomers (enjoyably described here) trying to make nature intelligible, but there was no Romantic Age of Psychology to put our attraction into perspective.

Now, buried inside the field of environmental psychology is a lode of research aimed at explaining our love of nature. They are part of a league of advocates who argue that nature heals, soothes, restores, and gives us a sense of place, supposedly; while admitting that some natural havens may be less restorative than others, they maintain that it is hard to find cities that compare well, though parks can help.

Is this true? Can psychology explain why waterfront property costs more? (And if the beachfront premium is shrinking, isn’t that inevitable when the waterfront is moving inland, making islanders out of former beach dwellers? Our species is too young to remember when oceanfront space was available for the lizards of Colorado and then disappeared.)

A couple of under-the-radar conditions make this question worth considering. First, there’s an urgent need for inexpensive stress therapy. There is a serious and enduring shortage of mental hospital beds. Although violence is often less among the mentally ill than among the population at large, this is not always the case. The public needs protection, the mentally ill need care, and the jails need relief. Some families must wait weeks and months before finding a hospital that can admit a troubled relative*. The problem must be addressed before more people experience VA State Sen. Creigh Deeds’ blind alley. Limited opportunities for free care do exist. They need more publicity.

Second, natural resources are disappearing. If nature can heal us, we need to grab its advantages now. In particular, the West is declining, and so is the Louisiana coast and the Chesapeake Bay coast.

More generally, there are shortages of water, globally, now. Ice is disappearing, including river ice. As water diminishes, the beaches are also becoming a thing of the past, often disappearing into concrete buildings or new beachfront in Dubai.

Nature is vanishing.

*Iowa has 64 beds for the entire state.

Ocean waves break on a rocky shore.

BIO: We evolved into humans in Africa, surrounded by nature, which was not like the outings we enjoy today. Nevertheless, we evolved to make use of what that world offered and the stresses that arose when it changed.

For example, the climate changed. Some researchers have pointed to a series of rapid transitions from rainy to dry and back again as the driver of brain enlargement in early humans and maybe elephants as well. Other catastrophes followed, which may have lent further advantage to living by our wits. Because the brain consumes so much oxygen and glucose for energy, it is an expensive organ to support, and some of the changes that followed in the millennia that followed environmental crises involved internal organization and cultural adaptations rather than enlargement.

The point is that our bodies and minds reflect the vagaries of living in, with and against nature. Our ancestors were not seeking respite from mean streets and noisy traffic.

(This is a broad-brush picture. Brain evolution can get complicated*, though there have been attempts to make it comprehensible here and there. Brain complexity is probably more important than size, anyway.)

We no longer live in our ancestors’ world, which makes any longing for nature not just poignant but perhaps alarming: What if the trees disappeared? What do we lose when some kind of animal becomes extinct—even insects or spiders?

Preserving nature is not like stock investments or collecting art. Joy in those possessions is signaled as subjective reward value by activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum. Nature is different (research here). The value we assign to natural objects seems to arise from dorsomedial prefrontal cortex that is associated with helping (altruistic) behavior and sharing.

*If that article failed to convince, try this one.

PSYCHO: Nature is what you think it is: Mountains, oceans, trees, flowers, wild animals, and so on. It is not our own creation. Ample evidence supports claims that returning to natural environments holds benefits for us in cognitive ability and in health, both mental and physical, particularly for those beset by mood disorders.

Free of predators and other threats to life, contact with nature is often refreshing.  Is it the stress reduction, the  negatively-charged ions in forest air or what Nobel-prize winner Edward Wilson calls biophilia, an innate attraction to nature?

Some have argued that nature deprivation is more than missing out. Kaplan hypothesized that nature restores our capacity to attend to our environment. Supporting evidence is scattered, perhaps because nature lacks an operational definition. Another approach reminds us that nature is our ancestral home, the environment that defined what bodies and behaviors would be adaptive, and established the first human affordances.

Affordances are, in Gibson’s terms, what nature offers us, what it “provides or furnishes”. It represents an opportunity to act in a particular way. A natural environment confronts us with the same challenges that hominins first confronted through biological evolution. In the fight to stay alive and reproduce, it hardly matters whether affordances are natural or contrived, though a history of developing for specific natural challenges of temperature, gravity, and other constraints might make the affordances of nature more completely fitted and integrated than, say, a convenient doorknob or handle.

However, neither of those approaches explains our joy we find in nature, in observing an ocean or a forest. One’s development in rural or urban environments might account for individual differences. A prominent attempt to make sense generally of feeling at home in nature, or at least in the ocean, has drawn attacks from several directions: the aquatic ape hypothesis. Its supporters claim to have evidence that most of us never see. The government has disowned belief in mermaids more thoroughly than in UFOs, but the notion of an aquatic phase in human evolution refuses to die, and further refutations continue to appear now and then.

SOCIAL: Nature may attract us for its social support—and not only terrestrial environments, but aquatic and marine ones, too. Geography influences our relations with other people and probably affects the social rewards we find in nature. Not only our physical health but our social health depends on the success of natural ecologies, and we may expect that degradation of our natural environment will have consequences for social organization as well.

Nature is no longer the same even for inhabitants of one geographical region. Most of us have grown up in cities and suburbs and may experience “environmental generational amnesia”. Technology has replaced natural resources that used to sustain us, leaving us with increasing problems of development and aging, such as myopia and cancer.

Whereas pulses of climate change in Africa may once have brought about bigger brains in humans, our new reliance on technology for work we used to do may bring about the opposite effect. Big brains carry a heavy cost, after all, and brain size and reproductive success are not directly correlated. In our recent past, our brains have actually been getting smaller. While it’s true that our bodies as a whole are shrinking, our brains are diminishing even faster. This will conserve the body’s energy; bigger isn’t always better, and what we once did as individuals we can now leave to the miracles of engineering.

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