Friday, April 28, 2017
Sydney Smith's Final Report Installment II: The Biophilia Hypothesis
“Heaven is under our feet
as well as over our heads.”
—Henry David Thoreau
In her search for “nature neurons,” Florence Williams found that there are two main theories for why nature benefits our brains: the biophilia hypothesis, which posits that we feel most at home in nature because we evolved there, and the cognitive hypothesis, the idea that being in nature improves our brain function. In this blog post, I’ll focus on the second hypothesis.
Unlike biophilia, this theory does not begin with the proposition that humans have an evolutionary emotional kinship with all living things. Instead, the focus is on cognition: how does being in nature help us focus, problem-solve, and work with others? As perceiving beings, we are bombarded with so much sensory information that the bulk of the brain’s work is filtering out what’s relevant. This is problematic, as it draws the brain away from other tasks. Namely, the human brain has a processing speed of approximately 120 bits per second, and it takes half that just to listen to one person. Attention is thus a valuable resource, a resource which, by the cognitive hypothesis, time spent in nature can help us replenish.
The brain’s cognitive
system consists of three main networks. There is the executive network, which does most of the filtering mentioned before. The spatial network calibrates our spatial awareness. The default network—responsible for our hopeful, insightful, easygoing side—kicks in when the executive network turns off. Therefore, a major cognitive hypothesis is that being in nature allows our executive system to take a break, thereby engaging the default network. In this way, we gain a sense of mental and emotional restoration.
We have long known—at least since the time of the first peripatetic philosophers—that time spent peacefully outdoors can clear the mind. Indeed, figures such as Aristotle, Darwin, Tesla, and Einstein took nature walks to help them think, Regardless of whether we explain the goodness of nature through the biophilia hypothesis or the cognitive hypothesis, and regardless of whether the goodness is due to nature itself or to the urban worries we leave behind, the very recent and ongoing science shows that being outside benefits our health. With that in mind, we can rethink nature’s importance in optimizing human potential and happiness.
Though, for nearly a decade, a greater percentage of the world population lives in urban areas than rural ones, little attention has been paid to the task of ensuring that urban areas are compatible with our psychological needs. Indeed, policymakers and civic leaders have an ethical responsibility to consider citizens’ need for nature into urban planning, policy decisions, and architectural design. We can also use the results of the nature neuron research to improve our daily lives too.
Williams recommends following Tim Beatley’s nature pyramid. At the base daily, local engagement with nature that helps us “destress, find focus and lighten our mental fatigue.” The pyramid includes weekly park trips and monthly visits to more remote outdoors. At the very tip is a yearly vigorous extended wilderness excursions. However we can, we should prime our nature neurons, which poetically resemble trees, for our health!
"Throw a stone into the stream and
the ripples that propagate themselves
are the beautiful type of all influence.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Source: Williams, Florence. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier,
and More Creative. New York: W.W. Norton &, Independent Since 1923, 2017. Print.
Word Count: 549
Comment on Tanner's post:
Comment on Sophie's post: