Biodiversity, microbiomes and the psychology of restoration
I’ve just returned from my first international travel in a long time after visiting a really great design firm in Ohio, where I talked about neuro-urbanism. I could spend this entire post telling you about how I’ve missed the thrills of travel, but it would be a little weird to extol the virtues of people-watching in airports (one of the most fascinating people places in the world in my view) and eavesdropping at airport bars where the clientele is an odd mix of seasoned veteran, anxious flyer, and bored traveler coping with a long layover. There’s a sense that we are all in there hiding from something and there’s a camaraderie among us as we sip overpriced drinks and eat bar snacks that we try studiously to avoid spilling on our travel clothes. But on to the trip.
Psychological Restoration and Biodiversity
As I said, my main purpose was to give a talk, but another benefit of these things for me is that I get to mix it up with new people, new perspectives, and new ideas. In the aftermath of this trip, a lot of stuff has been tumbling around in my mind. One of the freshest things about this visit for me was that it made me realize that I hadn’t thought very seriously about landscapes and landscape architecture for quite some time. As a researcher who has worked in this area and who has a few other nature-related irons in the fire at the moment, it took me by surprise to realize that I had fallen into a kind of oversimplified rut in the way that I think about nature and its psychological effects. There were a couple of key moments for me. One of them was listening to the other keynote speaker of the day, Jennifer Jewell, who closed out the meeting with a lovely discussion of biodiversity in gardens. The other was a casual conversation about microbiome diversity with a senior partner at the firm. As those two happenings began to coalesce in my mind, I realized what a true neophyte I had been in some of the ways I had understood the impact of nature on human wellbeing.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts here, or perhaps my book (1), you’ll know that one arm of my research has involved understanding the so-called “restorative response.” If this is a new term for you, just think of it for now as the feelings we experience when we have a chance to unwind in nature. A walk through the woods, for example, typically makes you feel more content and relaxed and is even accompanied by physiological effects like lowered blood pressure and arousal. Though there’s still a lot of mystery about it, that simple effect has been a cornerstone of some design principles in built settings. Hospitals, for example, take the beneficial effects of nature exposure quite seriously. In the realm of cities, there’s also good evidence that providing urban nature has measurable effects on physical and mental health.
In most laboratory studies of the restorative response, though, the heart of the method consists of pitting some “nature” exposures against some “urban” exposures and then looking for differences in their effects. The exposures can be anything from photographs to virtual reality experiences to genuine immersion in a place. In my own research and that of my students, we’ve used all these things and, for the most part, we’ve had a modicum of success in showing, just as many others have, that the restorative response is robust even though the size of effects is sometimes quite small. Indeed, in some of our ongoing work (2), we have struggled occasionally to show any effects at all and have had an interesting journey leading us to some new revelations of our own about the field. But the main point here is that all too often researchers, myself included, have set up some absurdly simple false dichotomies between the natural and the urban. In some of my earlier work we compared the effects of a ramble through a virtual reality rainforest with a very weird experience of the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, a place completely devoid of visible nature. Happily, many of us are beginning to think more sensibly about these contrasts, realizing that nature is much more complicated than just something that’s green and urban settings are more than bricks and concrete.
Even though those kinds of subtleties are much more in the spotlight now, it’s still the case that most of us haven’t thought very clearly about biodiversity. A few studies (3) have shown that the more biodiversity an area contains, the more likely it is to have beneficial effects on physical and mental health, but we haven’t dug very deeply into the mechanisms. There are all kinds of possibilities, some reaching back to sociobiologist Edward Wilson’s early surmise of our innate attraction to nature (4), where presumably the closer we are to experiencing the same kind of diversity as a completely wild environment, the happier we’ll be. Another idea, much more closely related to things I’ve said and thought in the past, is that our attraction to biodiversity may be akin to our general (within limits) attraction to complexity in many other kinds of settings as well. What I liked about Jewell’s presentation at the meeting was that she emphasized that there was something central about biodiversity. She made the convincing case that, without it, say in a big field of turf grass, there wasn’t much that was natural happening. Perhaps better than nothing, but sometimes not by much. So, I left feeling convinced that in the work we do, we must think much more carefully than we have to this point about exactly what we put into our natural “stimuli” rather than stuffing any old mix of green things into the computer monitor or VR headset.
But there was more than this. In my short discussion with one of the partners of the firm I visited, he gave me a quick overview of some thoughts about microbiomes. For anyone who follows this field even vaguely, none of what I have to say next will be shocking or surprising. The gist of the discussion was that there is tremendous variety in local microbiomes (5) and that what goes with this variety is an enormous range of human response, which might even go so far as to play a role in the development of immune responses, inflammation, and even neuropsychiatric disorders. As a sufferer of an autoimmune disorder myself I’d investigated some of these connections a little bit in the past, so this wasn’t complete epiphany to me. But the two sets of thoughts—microbiome variety on the one hand, and biodiversity on the other, really started something in my mind.
It hit me with force that our laboratory measurements of the restorative response might have been quite wide of the mark because some part of that response (maybe even quite a bit of it) might be coming not from looking at nature but from being in contact with nature. And indeed, there is some evidence for this. There’s nice evidence, for example, that the microbiome that one carries on one’s skin can change very quickly (think minutes) in response to a change in local conditions. That may be why forest-bathers (6) emphasize the value of walking barefooted in nature (7). I’m just at the very beginning of thinking and learning about microbiomes and how they get that way, so I’d be a poser if I suggested I had any kind of authority in this realm, but I do find myself wondering how to incorporate this into my own research and practice. As a start, it would be incredibly interesting to try to find a way to fractionate contributions of microbiome bacteria and perceptions of nature to the restorative response. For another, can we actually recognize healthy microbiomes through something related to biodiversity? Can we sense healthy microbiomes in some way? In another arm of my own research, I’m interested in something that the boffins call architectural atmosphere. We all understand that kind of atmosphere at an intuitive level. When we walk into a place, we feel something. It sometimes even has a smell. Any chance that atmosphere has a microbiotic element to it or is that just crazy talk? I may settle down, but these thoughts are leaving me a little bit tingly at the moment.
The Hegemony of Vision
There’s another angle to this as well. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I am preoccupied with the influence of our deep preconceptions about the world on how we do science and how research findings influence practice. When I give talks, for example, I’m often asked why I emphasize the visual part of nature exposure rather than the auditory realm. My answer is very practical and relates to the historical difficulty in delivering precise auditory stimuli compared to visual ones. This imbalance has been redressed by newer technology but still, I think, has a little influence on the course of research. But this concern with diversity and bacteria cuts a lot deeper than this. It suggests that if we try to understand the impact of environment on behaviour in any realm, natural or otherwise, and we do that using laboratory based visual objects in our experiments, we might be missing some of the most important elements of the story! Even in field work, if we only pay attention to what is seen, much may be lost to us.
To me, what’s perhaps most interesting about that has to do with our underlying beliefs about who and what we are and how we are related to the rest of the cosmos. To take a slight tangent, our enduring preoccupation with the visual was what made us think that we could get through COVID-19 using visual experiences of the world mediated by computer screens of one kind or another. Long before the pandemic, though, we were already rushing with giddy excitement into some kind of digital, metaversical existence consisting of weird hybrid life played out partly in silicon and partly in the earthy realms of real space. With the emergence of self-consciousness comes a near-magical ability to bracket ourselves outside of the flow of life and look on as objective bystanders (or perhaps just to think that we can). This ability may have deluded us into a way of thinking about a false dichotomy of nature and not-nature, a separation between life incarnate and a cybernetic caricature of life. There are all kinds of reasons for thinking that this just won’t work out in the long run, and I’m working on a book-length treatment of this argument. Mostly, discussions related to this have focused on our bodies. There’s something special and immutable about genuinely being somewhere with minds and bodies. But now here is a new set of reasons why digital simulacra may never explain or substitute for real life, and it has in part to do with the tiny critters that live on, in, under and around us, outnumbering us by orders of magnitude.
What all of this suggests, in line with the arguments that I’ve tried to make from time to time in the Wandering Brain, is that a truly useful evidence-based urbanism, neuro or otherwise, will need to consider a whole lot more than a simple set of reductionist principles from neuro- or cognitive science. Those principles will play a role, but just as an early basic skeleton perhaps. Necessary but not nearly sufficient. Developing the methods to go deeper than that will require a great deal of close collaboration and engagement between researchers and practitioners. My sense is that as our science matures, many in practice are seeing the value of these partnerships and some of us in science are more eager than ever before to engage with practitioners. I foresee a really exciting period of bootstrapping activities between experimenters and doers where we deal full-on with the complexity and the granularity of real settings rather than the clunky boiled-down models we experimenters so often find ourselves resorting to in the laboratory. Among the first steps might be ridding ourselves of the hegemony of the visual, so easy to describe in the compact language of mathematics, so straightforward to encode in a silicon chip, yet quite possibly missing much of what is central to life, human life included. Casting phenomena like the restorative effect in an entirely different kind of light, one that can make sense of us as full participants in a larger ecology may unlock some of the mystery and perhaps help us better understand how to participate in the making of great places. Indeed, I almost feel as though if we get this right, or even a little better, the way ahead may seem as though it should have been obvious.
How to do all of this or to even start on it? I have barely nascent thoughts to share in a later post. Stay tuned.
What I’m eating
You’d think that after a bit of travel I might have something interesting to say here. Alas this was not a week to focus on eating. I will tell you that the most delicious morsel of the week came while sitting in my hotel room at midnight in Columbus. Having endured multiple flight delays, I found myself checking into the hotel at 11 pm. Not all that late, it might seem, but the kitchen was long closed and there was nothing around to eat. I’ll never forget the kindness of the dear woman who checked me in and offered me a chicken sandwich as I walked away. I never got a picture. It was gone too fast.
What I’m reading
I can’t remember the last time I had read so little.in a two-week period. Sabbatical has truly ended. The only new book on that front is the massive novel Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman, described as the War and Peace of the 20th century. It’s been on my list for a long time. It’s ridiculous to think that I have time to get through its 1000 or so pages as my life is now. But I was drawn to it as I think with so much sadness about Russia. I have a deep attachment to that place and many friends there that I’ve lost track of. What is happening there now seems more and more as though any connection I have with that country will be lost for the rest of my life. I really hope that’s not the case.
Mostly Gratuitous Footnotes
(1) The book is Places of the Heart. This is a shameless plug. But if you like reading my posts here you’ll probably like my book.
(2) There’s a rule, sometimes bent, that we don’t talk about unpublished work in too much detail, but suffice to say we’ve had our share of frustrations with the restorative effect, as have others, and I think we’re all beginning to understand why.
(3) I don’t normally give a lot of references in these short posts but here’s one peer-reviewed paper which is both interesting and not behind a paywall.
(4) Edward Wilson was the founder of a field called sociobiology, these days better known as evolutionary psychology. He wrote a beautiful little book called Biophilia. Worth a read.
(5) There’s been enough buzz about gut microbiomes and their role in health, but there’s really so much more. Every house has its own unique microbiome. Neighborhood variability in microbiome has some astonishing correlations with various diseases.
(6) In case you haven’t heard about this fascinating practice, here’s a quick primer.
(7) And incidentally, though I don’t dare bare the links, there are rumours of an uptick in nude hiking since the beginning of the pandemic, which I find fascinating. Are we just a bit bored or is this emergency all-over microbiome exposure?