Discover more from The wandering brain
Nature lovin' science
Why do we love scenes of nature?
A few nights ago, I enjoyed a dinner out in Toronto in a lively Mediterranean restaurant with a lovely buzz of activity—large tables full of happy people eating delicious food, families with young children, couples, a few singletons, and a pretty friendly and happy staff. These kinds of experiences have been in short supply for me for the past couple of years and I found myself strangely overwhelmed. I teared up slightly and muttered something fatuous to my wife like “It’s a wonderful life,” but sans Jimmy Stewart accent (I think). Oddly, it felt like one of the best days of my life so far.
I can’t tell you with any certainty what kind of weird machinations might have been going on for me to have had this peak moment in what is, after all, a commonplace situation in the world again these days, but it has made me think more about my preoccupation with vitality.
In a lot of my talks recently I’ve been rabbiting on about this idea, and trying hard to draw the dots between a few different things that I think are important to understand about not just cities but also interior designs, natural spaces and, really, any kind of space that a human being might inhabit.
In my science-y life, I’ve spent serious time looking at the tired argument that human beings thrive in settings that bring them into contact with nature, whether that means immersion in a verdant forest or sitting in front of a window looking out on some urban trees. Massive effort has been devoted to trying to understand what has been called the “restorative effect,” in which our mood, creativity and even our blood pressure and heart rate respond positively to a few minutes of nature exposure. In my own work, I’ve been preoccupied with questions about mechanism. In early forays in this realm, I had this idea that if I could recreate the restorative effect in virtual reality, I would have bottled the magic and could just deconstruct the important scientific bits of this amazing phenomenon. The motivation for my crassly empirical party-pooping agenda was my belief that if we could figure out the key elements, there could be a kind of recipe book for how to build all kinds of settings that might be psychologically healthy.
I can now think of about seven thousand reasons why this was probably not a brilliant idea. It is true that I and several others have made some progress in this regard by looking at the mathematical properties of natural scenes, how they differed from more constructed environments, and why that might matter. Some of us have looked at fractal dimensions (how scenes of nature contain lots of self-similar elements—think fern fronds’ repeated shapes at multiple scales). Others (us for example) have looked some other basic perceptual properties of typical scenes of nature and found some promising relationships. Sort of. Still others have suggested that there might be specialized neural hardware for recognizing and “liking” natural scenes.
But more and more, as I’ve thought about all of this, I’ve begun to wonder whether we might be missing the forest for the trees (sorry for the awkward pun all wrapped up in a cliché). The reason has to do less with the provenance of the science on visual perception, scene preference, etc. etc. blah blah blah.* It has more to do with what I see as the overall rationale of this kind of approach to the problem. Why would we have a brain system that’s specialized for making us like scenes of nature?
Just for fun, I’ve taken a quick browse through the top answers on Google (I don’t use this methodology in my proper scientific writing…honest) and the quick answers all sound generally the same: we have some kind of deeply ingrained, innate need to be connected to nature, which is written into our very DNA. So. The canonical idea is, I suppose, that long ago, somewhere in what we professionals call our “evolutionary lineage” there was a selective advantage to being surrounded by and connected to nature. I can almost hear myself saying those kinds of things in many, many talks that I’ve given in the past. But here’s the thing: if these mysterious drives are of such ancient vintage that they are embedded in our very DNA, and they were there to draw us towards nature, what were they drawing us away from? In most of the current science, we contrast the effects of such nature immersion with immersion in other kinds of settings – cityscapes, picture of abstract art, blah blah blah.** But these mythical early creatures from which we descend did not have such options. It was all nature all the time. It is possible that the answer lies in the idea that there might be different flavors of nature, some better than others. We know, for example, that people respond more favourably to plant diversity than to monoculture and there is even a bit of evidence (begging for replication though I think) that we prefer certain tree shapes because they resemble those that our forebears might have seen in the African savannah. Maybe. But that’s not the way most modern experiments on the restorative effect have been contextualized. It is almost always nature pitted against cityscape. Forest vs street. Lush field vs blighted parking lot.
I fear that there is a lot of this kind of vaguely essentialist blarney buried in our thinking about the origins of our nature preferences. It might make a lovely Rudyard Kipling Just-So story or even a yarn that would please Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, but I think that, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, we want it deeper (not darker….goodness there’s darkness enough in the world at the moment). I think that to make sense of some of this, we need to think differently about what kinds of settings attract us and why that might be. There’s a load of interesting and relevant research out there. I’ll get to some of it in future posts. But for now, having gently slid the robe from the emperor’s shoulders, let’s leave him as he is for a little bit and have a think.
*I’m keeping my tone informal enough that “blah blah blah” is standing in place of a bristling field of scientific references, but if you’re interested enough to want to know more and new enough to this that you don’t know where to look, just hit me up in the comments or message me somehow.
**There we go again.