Original source: E.O. Wilson explains why parks and nature are really good for your brain – The Washington Post |
In recent years, a growing body of research has documented the psychological and even health benefits of spending time in natural settings, such as forests or parks. This research has shown that people who live in urban areas that feature more trees have better physical health, that nature walks decrease a tendency towards harmful mental “rumination” and much more.
None of which comes as a surprise to E.O. Wilson, the famed Harvard biologist and conservationist known for his influential ideas about evolution, the “consilience” of human knowledge and much more. In fact, you might say that the recent research amounts to a modern reaffirmation of Wilson’s more than 30-year-old idea of “biophilia,” which he described in an eponymous 1984 book as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes,” including both living organisms and the environments they occupy.
Recently I had the privilege of speaking with Wilson while he was in Washington, D.C., for the 125th anniversary celebration of Rock Creek Park, organized by the the Rock Creek Conservancy, which aims to protect and preserve the park where Wilson, as a child, collected butterflies and ants. He now sits on a Green Ribbon Panel of advisers to the Conservancy on the park’s future, and wants to see a full biological survey of all the species it contains, and a combined future for the park as a hub for both research and also education for children.
“That’s what Rock Creek Park has: Real nature,” Wilson told me. “Original forests. It’s a little beat up but it’s the real thing.”
In the interview, though, I wasn’t focused as much on the Park’s resident biology as on how visiting it might affect our own. So I asked Wilson about the recent surge of attention to “biophilia,” particularly in a human health and wellness context — and why this older idea’s moment seems to have only arrived now.
“It was difficult, at a time 50 years ago shall we say, when it was widely believed in the social sciences that humans really were so different from everything else, all other life forms, that what really mattered was developing the perfect political systems that suited us,” Wilson answered. He continued:
Now we’ve come all the way around and are beginning, especially through studies in brain science, and psychology, including social psychology, and archaeology and biology, we’re coming to realize that there’s something a lot more complicated and deep and wondrous in the development of the human mind, than what we had imagined even.
So there is a new trend and biophilia is part of that, because we know that all other animals — mobile animals, that are able to move around — are programmed to go to the right environment. They do it with no training whatsoever or anything. They just know exactly where to go and what to do when they get there. Why should human beings not have at least a strong residue of those environments in which we evolved? And those are natural environments, we originated in wildlands with certain characteristics.
In other words, Wilson believes that there is an innate tendency to want, as a human, to be in certain types of natural environments — particularly, he says, those that mimic African savannahs where we evolved. “People say, ‘I go there and in a short while, I feel somehow completely at home,’ ” Wilson says of travelling to the savannah.
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge is a 1998 book by biologist E. O. Wilson. In this book, Wilson discusses methods that have been used to unite the sciences and might in the future unite them with the humanities.