#StayWild Tip: Learn something wild. Watch a documentary, pick up a new book, or even try a free online course.
I’m in the middle of an honors degree in Psychology, and over the summer I have some study downtime before the next module begins in October. People often ask how I manage to juggle a full-time job and my various wild interests with studying. It’s certainly tough, but like so many things it helps that I enjoy what I’m studying. The latest module in particular has been very interesting, covering a range of topics from the paranormal, to conspiracy theories. I have also been reading about various theories on how nature relates to physical and psychological well-being. The consensus is that the outdoors (or elements of being outdoors) are intrinsically linked to health and happiness for many people.
For one of my essays I had to combine a number of psychological theories to explain why this might be so from my own personal experiences. I thought I would share some extracts from that essay and my conclusions with you. Let me know if you agree, or have different theories of your own!
As sentient, introspective beings, humans understandably strive to make sense of and understand their place in an increasingly complex and urbanised world: the practice of exploring the fluid concept of “self” is as old as psychology itself (Bishop, 2015). As humans grow and learn to consider themselves as individuals, the self is shaped over time by experiencing boundaries, sensory input and external influences in the wider environment so that, arguably, each person develops their own unique and distinct self.
In this essay I will have the opportunity to analyse my self and my experiences, and seek to understand them in the context of several key psychological concepts and theories. The assignment will describe some of my own experiences before describing a number of these theories, then finally explaining how and why they are relevant to my own experiences. In particular, I will be focusing on my relationship with contrasting natural and urban environments, and the extent to which I am connected to each.
I am attracted to natural environments, especially open outdoor areas where I find peace and solitude. As an amateur naturalist and hillwalker, I am especially fond of moorland, forests and mountainous terrain. In these places I experience peace and relaxation, yet am also continuously stimulated by natural points of interest and a sense of discovery and connection. When I contemplate my experiences in these environments I feel a sense of relaxation, and also, perhaps contradictorily, excitement. When I walk in this way, I often forget to acknowledge everyday stresses and worries, and experience a joyful sense of freedom and “living in the now”. The climax, of course, occurs when reaching a mountain summit. It is tremendously exciting and liberating. The view from such a high point offers a sense of the world unrolling to an infinite horizon and a depth of vision and imagination rarely rivalled amongst the urban setting of cities and towns.
My experiences of cities and towns contrasts strongly with my connection to wild places. My place of work used to be in Glasgow city centre where, on a daily basis, I negotiated grim grey roads and right-angles of bland and uniform texture, and where buildings had barred windows. Inside my office I worked within a defined area, a cubicle of plastic and artificial colour. Plastic plants made a brave effort to brighten the space. My view – out of a grimy, barred window – was of a dark and oppressive mirror-image building. It was a stressful environment, and at lunchtimes I would escape some distance to the river or Glasgow Green to find something fresh, peaceful and invigorating. I now work inside Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, with a view of meadows, a river and mountains from my workplace. I walk on my breaks most days and see deer, squirrels, and a stimulating and diverse range of trees, plants and birds; I feel substantially happier, energised and less stressed, and actually look forward to travelling in each day.
My contrasting experiences of these very different urban and natural environments may be typical for many people, but they deserve analysis for they can be better understood by considering a number of psychological theories and concepts.
Some researchers have suggested that humans are born predisposed to prefer more natural surroundings and landscapes, and that this is in fact an evolutionary response that has become hard-wired into our genetic make-up over generations. As our ancestors evolved in more natural environments, their physiology and responses altered to support relevant survival strategies. For example, studies such as those by Oriands and Heerwagen (cited in Stevens, 2015) have demonstrated that people generally prefer a landscape featuring open space with scattered shrubs and trees, known as savannah. As humans predominantly evolved in savannah-like areas, their senses and ability to perceive threats, escape routes and potential food sources adapted to be efficient in this environment, and it therefore makes sense that humans perhaps feel more comfortable or “at home” in these kind of locations. This parallels with my own experiences of enjoying and feeling relaxed in wild, open lands – especially hillsides – where large swathes of landscape are often open for viewing, providing ample opportunity to spot approaching predators. In support of this, other studies have shown that people demonstrate more stress responses in less-open, built-up areas – such as dense forest or towns and cities – and this is perhaps because they present ample opportunities for ambush predators, navigation errors and other unexpected hazards (Stevens, 2015). This could go some way toward explaining the anxiety I experience when visiting busy urban areas such as Glasgow.
Connected to the concept of evolutionary responses is the idea of landscape preference, based on self-similar structures and patterns known as fractals (Forsythe et al., cited in Stevens, 2015). Fractal patterns are those that repeat again and again at different scales and frequencies, for example the spiral of a snail shell, or a snowflake, or the sound of waves or water. Most things in nature have been shown to develop along fractal patterns – consider the bifurcating forks of trees and their resemblance to the veins and arteries of human anatomy. It is suggested that the human propensity for natural environments through evolved responses may drive them to prefer more natural, more fractal, environments (Stevens, 2015). My own experiences support this preference for fractal landscapes – from a mountain summit, the recursive layers of distant mountains and cloud patterns repeat as far as the eye can see, and attractive fractal arrangements can be seen in rock formations; without a sense of scale, the surface of a small rock could be indistinguishable from the side of a cliff face, sharing the same colours and texture regardless of size or distance. In contrast, it can be seen that man-made, artificial structures created by humans rarely demonstrate these same fractal patterns, being instead constructed in blocky, linear forms. This may, again, partially explain why people prefer natural environments over urban ones, and is an explanation I can empathise with given my own experiences in the city environment.
My personal experiences of well-being and anxiety experienced in differing environments described above can also be used to illustrate theories concerning the restorative effects of natural environments. A restorative environment is one in which an individual’s capabilities and functions are rejuvenated, especially where they have been lowered through stress or overuse (Hartig and Staats, cited in Stevens, 2015). Some research has suggested that restorative natural environments can lower stress, and thus stress-related illnesses, and a concept developed by Kaplan and Kaplan, known as attention restoration theory (ART), attempts to explain this process (Kaplan and Kaplan, cited in Stevens, 2015). They postulated that a person could recover from a reduced concentration capacity provided they spend time in environments which include four key qualities: a sense of fascination (stimulating the senses in an appealing way), of being away (a disconnection from the rigours and stress of every day life), of extent (a sense of connection or being part of a wider natural world), and lastly compatibility (a subjective inclination to spend time in that environment). These four components of ART link to features which people have evolved to best perceive, and are therefore easier to make sense of and more relaxing.
The Kaplans explain that people have two contrasting types of attention, one being directed attention, which is the ability to actively discriminate between competing stimuli during concentration, and involuntary attention, which is an autonomous response to stimuli, such as a startle response to a loud noise. Through overuse of directed attention, people can become mentally fatigued and, by spending time in natural environments where directed attention can “rest”, they experience the restorative effect of ART. It is clear from my own experiences described above that I experience a restorative effect in natural environments. When I am walking in the countryside or on hills, I am not required to actively direct my attention, and instead am wide open to natural – involuntary – stimuli, allowing my ability to concentrate and direct my attention to recuperate. Without a doubt I also benefit from spending my working days in a much more natural and less stressful environment compared to the urban centre of Glasgow.
In summary, this essay has used examples from my own personal experiences of natural and urban life to illustrate a number of key theories and concepts relating to human relationships with the environment. This essay has identified and explained a number of related theories including evolutionary response, landscape preference and fractals, restorative environments and attention restoration, to explain and help to understand my own experience of gaining satisfaction and well-being from natural environments, and the rather less positive associations I have with regard to urban environments. Undoubtedly, this essay has demonstrated my subjective experiences only, and it would be interesting to see how my own sense of self and relationship with the natural world relates to others. It has been a fascinating exercise, prompting a deeper understanding of my personal connection with nature.