Saturday, October 25, 2014

Kat McGowan - Cooperation Is What Makes Us Human

This is a re-post of an older article from Nautilus, but it's worth the (re)read even if you saew it originally. Michael Tomasello is the primary expert here, and his book is listed below, along with a few others that are related and interesting reads.

Michael Tomasello, Why We Cooperate (2009)
Samuel Bowles, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (2013)
Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition (2006)
Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield, SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed (2012)

Cooperation Is What Makes Us Human

Where we part ways with our ape cousins

TALES about the origins of our species always start off like this: A small band of hunter-gatherers roams the savannah, loving, warring, and struggling for survival under the African sun. They do not start like this: A fat guy falls off a New York City subway platform onto the tracks. 
But what happens next is a quintessential story of who we are as human beings.

On Feb. 17, 2013, around 2:30 a.m., Garrett O’Hanlon, a U.S. Air Force Academy cadet third class, was out celebrating his 22nd birthday in New York City. He and his sister were in the subway waiting for a train when a sudden silence came over the platform, followed by a shriek. People pointed down to the tracks.

O’Hanlon turned and saw a man sprawled facedown on the tracks. “The next thing that happened, I was on the tracks, running toward him,” he says. “I honestly didn’t have a thought process.”

O’Hanlon grabbed the unconscious man by the shoulders, lifting his upper body off the tracks, but struggled to move him. He was deadweight. According to the station clock, the train would arrive in less than two minutes. From the platform, O’Hanlon’s sister was screaming at him to save himself.
Suddenly other arms were there: Personal trainer Dennis Codrington Jr. and his friend Matt Foley had also jumped down to help. “We grabbed him, one by the legs, one by the shoulders, one by the chest,” O’Hanlon says. They got the man to the edge of the platform, where a dozen or more people muscled him up and over. More hands seized the rescuers’ arms and shoulders, helping them up to safety as well.

In the aftermath of the rescue, O’Hanlon says he has been surprised that so many people have asked him why he did it. “I get stunned by the question,” he says. In his view, anybody else would’ve done the same thing. “I feel like it’s a normal reaction,” he says. “To me that’s just what people do.”
More precisely, it is something only people do, according to developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, codirector of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

For decades Tomasello has explored what makes humans distinctive. His conclusion? We cooperate. Many species, from ants to orcas to our primate cousins, cooperate in the wild. But Tomasello has identified a special form of cooperation. In his view, humans alone are capable of shared intentionality—they intuitively grasp what another person is thinking and act toward a common goal, as the subway rescuers did. This supremely human cognitive ability, Tomasello says, launched our species on its extraordinary trajectory. It forged language, tools, and cultures—stepping-stones to our colonization of every corner of the planet.

In his most recent research, Tomasello has begun to look at the dark side of cooperation. “We are primates, and primates compete with one another,” Tomasello says. He explains cooperation evolved on top of a deep-seated competitive drive. “In many ways, this is the human dilemma,” he says.

In conversation, Tomasello, 63, is both passionate and circumspect. Even as he overturns entrenched views in primatology and anthropology he treads carefully, backing up his theories by citing his experiments in human and primate behavior. He is aware of criticism from primatologists such as Frans de Waal, director of Living Links, a division of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, who has said Tomasello underestimates the minds of chimps and overestimates the uniqueness of human cooperation.

Nonetheless, Tomasello’s fellow scientists credit him with brave experiments and ingenious insights. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, who has done seminal research in child psychology and intelligence, has called Tomasello “a pioneer.” Herbert Gintis, an economist and behavioral scientist at the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary science research institution, agrees. “His work is fabulous,” Gintis says. “It has made clear certain things about what it means to be human.”

Every Chimp for Himself

Tomasello calls his theory of cooperation the Vygotskian Intelligence Hypothesis. It is named for Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who argued in the 1920s that children’s minds do not automatically acquire skills, but develop full human intelligence only through cooperative teaching and social interactions. Tomasello applies this idea to the evolution of our species. He proposes that as many as 2 million years ago, as climate swings altered the availability and competition for food, our ancestors were forced to put their heads together to survive.

Tomasello began his research career at Emory University, working with apes at the Yerkes primate center. He acknowledges that chimpanzees, like humans, manage complex social lives, solve problems flexibly, and create and deploy tools. Nonetheless, “I take it as given that something is different,” he says. “Humans are doing something on a different level.”

As Tomasello began to study the cognition of chimpanzees and other great apes, he was influenced by pioneering child psychologist Jean Piaget, who recognized that children see the world differently. “He looked at children as if they were another species,” Tomasello says. “That’s the guiding image I started with.”

At the Yerkes primate center, Tomasello adopted an experimental method that he would develop throughout his career: systematically comparing the cognition of great apes and young children in head-to-head tests. Since the use of language is an obvious difference between humans and chimps, he began by looking at the precursors of speech. Great apes often communicate with gestures. Babies point before they talk. Presumably our hominid ancestors also gesticulated before they developed language. So Tomasello focused on pointing, devising dozens of studies to explore how and when chimps and children point.

He found a major difference between the two species. By the time a baby begins to point, at about nine months of age, she has already made several sophisticated cognitive leaps. When she points at a puppy and looks at you, she knows that her perspective may be different from yours (you haven’t noticed the pup), and she wants to share her information—doggie!—with you.

“We naturally inform people of things that are interesting or useful to them,” Tomasello says. “That’s unusual. Other animals don’t do that.” Pointing is an attempt to change your mental state. It is also a request for a joint experience: She wants you to look at the dog with her.

Chimps, by contrast, do not point things out to each other. Captive chimps will point for humans, but it’s to make a demand rather than to share information: I want that! Open the door! They do not understand informational human pointing, because they do not expect anyone to share information with them. In one of Tomasello’s experiments, food is hidden in one of two buckets. Even if the experimenter points to where it is, the chimp still chooses randomly. “It’s absolutely surprising,” Tomasello says. “They just don’t seem to get it."

In parallel experiments, children as young as 12 months have no trouble understanding an adult pointing a finger at a hidden reward. To understand pointing, Tomasello posits, you must form a “we intention,” a shared goal that both of you will pay attention to the same thing. Chimps don’t point because they don’t think in terms of “we.” They think in terms of “me.” “Cooperatively informing them of the location of food does not compute,” he says. The chimpanzee world is egocentric: Every chimp for himself.

The idea that chimps don’t work together appeared at first to contradict what some biologists had observed in the wild. Chimps take turns grooming one another, for example. They also form group hunting parties to encircle and kill red colobus monkeys, a favorite food. But these behaviors don’t require the kind of we intention that Tomasello was finding in even the youngest humans. Grooming is a tit-for-tat activity that merely requires two animals to alternate: Literally, I scratch your back, you scratch mine. There’s no need to jointly focus attention.

Chimps can also hunt together without deliberately coordinating, Tomasello reasons. If, during the chase, each chimp simply maximizes his own chances of catching the prey, each will position himself where he thinks the monkey will try to break out of the circle of predators. “This kind of hunting event is clearly a group activity of some complexity,” Tomasello writes in his book Why We Cooperate. “But wolves and lions do something very similar, and most researchers do not attribute to them any kind of joint goals or plans. The apes are engaged in a group activity in ‘I’ mode, not in ‘we’ mode.”

Michael TomaselloPhoto: Jacobs Foundation

Alone Together

Still, it was hard to tell exactly what was going on from watching wild animals. Lab experiments, where multiple animals can be tested in controlled situations and their responses measured and quantified, could clarify whether chimps even have a collaborative mode. Since collaboration requires that you understand what someone else wants and thinks, Tomasello explored whether chimps have what psychologists call “theory of mind,” or insight into what another individual might be thinking.

The consensus was that apes did not have this mental ability, but Tomasello and his team, including then undergraduate student Brian Hare, began devising ape-centric experiments to test whether that was truly the case. Rather than using psychology tests developed for human beings, as many ape researchers did, they invented new tests that were more relevant to the chimpanzee world.

Chimps are hierarchical with an alpha chimp getting priority in feeding. One experiment set a high-ranking chimp against a low-ranking one to compete for food. The researchers hid snacks in such a way that only the subordinate animal could see all the hiding places. When both animals were freed to go after the food, the subordinate dove for the snacks that had been hidden out of the high-ranking chimp’s line of sight. (Control experiments showed that if both animals saw where the food was hidden, the subordinate animal didn’t bother to approach the food.) The reasonable explanation was that the low-ranking chimp modeled his rival’s thought process in order to exploit his blind spots. He had a concept of what the other chimp saw and believed—the basic definition of theory of mind.

This study and others like it in 2000 and 2001 led the group to conclude that chimps do actually have insight into other individuals’ thoughts. But they don’t use this ability to cooperate, as humans often do. They use it to win.

“If you try to do something cooperative with a chimp—point out something, show them where some food is—their attention wanders all over the place,” says Tomasello. “But if you compete with them over food, they are zeroed in like a laser. All their cognitive skills are on.” (If chimps had a self-help bestseller, it would be titled, How to Outwit Rivals and Get More Fruit.)

It’s not that chimpanzees are incapable of helping. De Waal describes one instance in which chimps boosted an arthritic elderly troupe mate up to a joint perch and used their own mouths to carry water to her so that she could drink. De Waal says this is one of many examples of animal cooperation. He predicts the claim that humans are unique because they collaborate to solve problems “will drop by the wayside.”

Tomasello agrees that chimps sometimes assist each other and help each other get food, under specific conditions that eliminate all possibility of competition. In one of his experiments, conducted with wild-born chimps in a Ugandan sanctuary, two chimps entered separate cages, with fruit placed in a third. The first chimp knew from previous experience that he could not open his own cage door to get to the food, but he could help the other animal by pulling a chain that opened the door of the other cage. Here, with nothing to gain and nothing to lose, eight out of nine animals pulled the chain so that the other animal could get the fruit.

“It was a huge surprise to me,” Tomasello says. “My initial reaction was: Damn. That doesn’t fit very well.” But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that chimps, again, are acting individually, not in cooperation with each other. “To help, you just need to know what the goal is, and then if you’re motivated, you can help,” he says. “It’s not cognitively very complicated.” Human cooperation, meanwhile, requires two or more people to have insight into each other’s intentions, formulate a joint goal, assume specific roles, and then coordinate their efforts. It demands cognitive capacities that even the most helpful chimpanzees don’t possess.

In this case, the term “helpful” may be a little generous. Alicia Melis, a former postdoc in Tomasello’s lab, explains that chimps work together only grudgingly when it comes to obtaining food. In one of her experiments, a board laden with food is placed beyond the reach of two chimps; they can get the food only if each grabs one end of a rope attached to the board and they jointly pull it. In her experiment, the animals worked together only if the food was already evenly divided so that they did not have to compete over the spoils. It also helped if they already got along.

“The motivation does not seem to be, ‘Let’s do this together,’ ” says Melis, now an assistant professor of behavioral science at Warwick Business School in the U.K. “It’s, ‘Let me try to do this alone, and if I can’t, we’ll do it together.’ ”

Tomasello has discovered that young children, by contrast, find that working together can be a reward all its own. When adults deliberately drop objects in his experiments, babies of 14 months will crawl over to pick them up and hand them back. Toddlers open doors for experimenters whose hands are full. They do it without being asked and without being rewarded. Once they get the idea that they are partnering, they commit to joint intentionality. If a partner is having trouble, they stop and help. They share the spoils equally. “They really understand that we’re doing this together, and we have to divide it together,” Tomasello says.

Evolution of Collaboration

There are no fossils of ancient hominid brains or other physical evidence that might tell us when and how our ancestors first put their minds together to collaborate. Without such clues, the question of why we alone became a collaborative species is difficult to answer, says Hare, who is now a professor at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University. “Figuring out what makes us unique is hard as hell,” he says. “But it’s much easier than the next question, which is the real issue, the Higgs boson of evolutionary anthropology: How did we get that way?”

In the absence of physical evidence, Tomasello proposes one possible scenario. During the Pleistocene, about 1.5 million years ago, the climate became very bumpy, with frequent temperature swings that forced our ancestors to work together to access new sources of food. Perhaps we became scavengers, joining forces to ward off bigger, tougher meat-eating competitors. Under these circumstances, any genetic variation that made it easier to collaborate—maybe by more accurately reading someone else’s intentions, seeing the whites of their eyes, or simply being more relaxed about sharing food—presumably would have helped those individuals survive, and would have spread through the population.

Hints as to how this might have happened emerge from a surprising place: a fox-breeding farm in Siberia. In the 1950s the Russian biologist Dmitri Belyaev was interested in how dogs might first have been domesticated. He paired the most docile, friendly foxes he could find, then chose the gentlest from each litter and bred them. In a mere 10 generations, the young foxes acted like puppy dogs. The first time they met a human, they wagged their tails and tried to leap into people’s arms to lick their faces.

The descendants of those foxes still live in a facility in Siberia, where Hare, Tomasello’s former student, traveled in 2003 to test their cognition. He found that fox kits that had spent less than 20 minutes total around a person already understood human gestures, such as following a pointing finger to find food. They did not have to be taught. “That blew me away,” Hare says. His experiments suggested that as the foxes lost their fear of humans, they became able to repurpose their cognitive abilities to a new human-focused agenda: relating to us.

The foxes’ ability to read human social cues was now under strong artificial evolutionary pressure, since only the friendliest animals got the chance to breed. With Belyaev calling the shots, the foxes were competing against each other to be more socially perceptive. The outcome, a few dozen generations later, is a fox that understands human pointing. The small change in temperament permitted a big advance in social intelligence.

Hare and Tomasello suspect our ancestors went through a similar process. Basically, we domesticated ourselves. When collaborating to find food became essential because of changes in the climate or changes in the competition, we became less aggressive and more willing to share. Aggressive individuals, unwilling to cooperate, would starve and die out. Now that our temperaments allowed us to put our minds together, we were able to develop communal inventions like language and culture, and sustain these innovations by teaching and imitating one another. The ability to crystallize knowledge in inventions and traditions, Tomasello says, is what turned the ordinary primate mind into an extraordinary human one.

“Through our collaborative efforts, we have built our cultural worlds, and we are constantly adapting to them,” he writes in Why We Cooperate.

Us and Them

Today Tomasello is also looking through the prism of collaboration and beginning to explain some of the uniquely dark and nasty things that humans do. Maintaining a collaborative social structure encourages us to shun outsiders and discipline nonconformists. It fosters groupthink—the urge to stifle dissenting opinions in the interest of harmony and loyalty. Here, his research connects with that of anthropologists and economists who study social norms and other psychological underpinnings of group behavior.

Game theory models, which forecast how people behave when their interests are in conflict, suggest that cooperation can only be sustained in large groups if members punish anybody who freeloads or behaves selfishly. This prediction was borne out in 2005 by an anthropological study of 15 societies, mostly traditional small-scale communities, scattered around the globe.

But our tendency to enforce standards goes beyond simply ensuring justice. The impulse to formulate social rules and punish rule breakers applies to all kinds of situations, from whom we marry to how we dress. One possible benefit of these social norms is that they help us quickly identify who is part of our in-group and who is not; they also make it easier to collaborate more effectively. (If you hunt the same way I do, it’s going to be easier for us to work together, and it’s also a sign that you are a member of my group, someone I can presumably rely upon.)

The downside is that we also tend to blindly adopt arbitrary social conventions. Unlike other great apes, we are fundamentally conformists, Tomasello says. We form groups in which everybody dresses and talks the same way, “and anybody who intentionally doesn’t conform, we wonder: What’s wrong with them—do they not want to be one of us?” From this perspective, laws, morals, and religious rules are simply larger and more institutional versions of the impulse to police social norms, he says: “Human societies are just one layer of cooperation, or incentives for cooperation, on top of another.”

The open question is whether being natural-born collaborators also condemns us to be small-minded conformists who fear and distrust outsiders. Tomasello is now exploring how children understand group membership, testing how they act while wearing uniforms or being asked to work together. Kids absorb social norms quickly, he has found, and they enforce them enthusiastically. They can be little martinets. In one recent experiment, 3-year-olds are shown a game of pretend in which a pen is supposed to be used as an imaginary toothbrush. A puppet held by a researcher then asks to join the game, but draws with the pen instead. One child is outraged, barking, No! You must brush the teeth! The child’s reaction demonstrates the basic urge to impose social rules even when they are meaningless.

Ultimately, Tomasello’s research on human nature arrives at a paradox: our minds are the product of competitive intelligence and cooperative wisdom, our behavior a blend of brotherly love and hostility toward out-groups. Confronted by this paradox, the ugly side—the fact that humans compete, fight, and kill each other in wars—dismays most people, Tomasello says. And he agrees that our tendency to distrust outsiders—lending itself to prejudice, violence, and hate—should not be discounted or underestimated. But he says he is optimistic. In the end, what stands out more is our exceptional capacity for generosity and mutual trust, those moments in which we act like no species that has ever come before us.

Kat McGowan is a contributing editor at Discover magazine and independent journalist based in Berkeley, Calif., and New York City. She writes about neuroscience, genetics, and other science that affects how we understand ourselves.

This article was originally published in our “What Makes You So Special” issue in April, 2013.

The Science of Awe (via Sierra Club)

Who cares about the science of awe - it's interesting and it's fun to puzzle out these questions, but awe is best experienced, not studied.

Interestingly, it was only 2003 that Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt, then at the University of Virginia, proposed awe as an emotion worth studying. “In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear,” they wrote in the journal Cognition and Emotion, “awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. . . . Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”

This is an interesting article from The Sierra Club.

The Science of Awe

Can psychologists chart what happens when nature blows your mind?

By Jake AbrAhamson
November 6, 2014

Cedar Wright enjoy a view of the long way down, moments after getting the first ascent of the Virgin Tower in Enshi Grand Canyon National Park, China. | Photo by Keith Ladzinski

A FEW YEARS AGO, I RAN Utah’s Green River with a group of 13-year-olds. Our first day was a grueling, 26-mile slog through mostly flat water, with a few Class I and II rapids as our prize. I knew the real reward would come when we entered the most majestic part of Desolation Canyon in a couple of days, but they wouldn’t take my word for it. They were slouched in their boats asking, “Why are we doing this?”

That evening a thunderstorm rolled into the river valley, and we spent an hour in our tents. It was one of the most intense and otherworldly storms I’d ever seen. When thunder struck, it felt like my body was inside God’s clap, and the lightning galvanized the entire sky. Eventually the sky cleared. I stepped out of my tent as if exiting a bomb shelter, with a distinct feeling that the world would be different. The kids seemed to emerge from their tents at the exact same instant. The air was heavy and hot, the sky a color I had never imagined—gold from the land to the firmament. Time slowed. The mountains, the people, and the river flowing through it all seemed held together by an intelligent pattern.

The frustration of the day’s paddle was wiped away. I felt benevolent and open toward the kids. Making dinner was easy. The storm had pulled us together.

Looking back, I was puzzled by the experience. What had happened to me during that thunderstorm? I know humans don’t move in unison accidentally, so why did I think we’d emerged from our tents in perfect sync? I’m not a spiritual person, or a gushy one, so what caused this quasi-religious feeling that the mountains, people, and river were hanging together in ethereal balance?

I am both thrilled and dispirited to report that science has answered these questions.

Scientifically speaking, the storm brought me into a state of awe, an emotion that, psychologists are coming to understand, can have profoundly positive effects on people. It happens when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental models of what’s possible in the world. In its wake, people act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli, like arguments or advertisements, and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general. Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. And about three-quarters of the time, it’s elicited by nature.

In June 2014, the Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors program (formerly known as Inner City Outings) arranged to take 25 Oakland High School students on a two-day rafting trip down Northern California’s American River. They also took part in a study designed to quantify the biological and emotional benefits of such a trip. | Photos by Jayms Ramirez

IT WAS ONLY 11 YEARS AGO that psychologists Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt, then at the University of Virginia, proposed awe as an emotion worth studying. “In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear,” they wrote in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2003, “awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. . . . Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”

Over twenty studies later, the picture of awe is clearer and more detailed. “In various studies we’ve asked people, ‘What’s running through your mind when you feel awe?’” Keltner said, “and they’ll say things like ‘I want to make the world better,’ or ‘I just feel like being quiet,’ or ‘I feel like purifying things.’ It makes you humble. It makes you curious about the world.” To awe, Keltner attributes both the faith of Krishna, who, according to myth, on being shown the secrets of the universe through a third eye, was suddenly ready to do God’s work; and the desire of John Muir to protect the environment, which was brought about by his life-altering experiences in the Sierra. Throughout his writings, Muir described quintessential awe experiences. Take this moment, when he feels pleasurably energized by the massive and threatening Mt. Hood: “There stood Mount Hood in all the glory of the alpenglow, looming immensely high, beaming with intelligence, and so impressive that one was overawed as if suddenly brought before some superior being newly arrived from the sky.”

Not surprisingly, such experiences are tough to replicate in a laboratory setting. To elicit and study awe, Keltner and his peers instead rely on mind-bending videos, quick exposures to nature amid urbanized landscapes, or vast and disorienting stimuli. In an early study, participants were asked to stare at a replica of a T. rex skeleton. These techniques work. Psychologists can show certain awe-inducing videos to a test group and then ask questions about how cognition, other emotions, and self-concept are affected by the experience.

However, Keltner, a tan Californian with sandy, shoulder-length hair and a wholesome smile—who cites hiking in the High Sierra, meeting the Dalai Lama, and the births of his daughters as among the greatest awe events in his life—thinks scientists can gain a new perspective on the emotion if they move away from amazing-video, dinosaur-skeleton awe. To conduct what Keltner believes will be the first study to measure the long-term, physical health benefits of awe, he and a team of grad students are moving the laboratory into the woods.

“The science of emotion gets really exciting when you get as close to the phenomenon as possible,” Keltner told me. “We want to engage with people and observe them when they’re really out there on the river or lying under the stars.”

WHICH IS WHY I FIND MYSELF pulling into an eddy on California’s American River with a boatload of students from Oakland High School and their environmental science teacher and guide, Kevin Jordan. A hundred yards ahead, the water drops at a commotion of river and rocks called Troublemaker. It churns with whitewater and white noise. The kids wait calmly as Jordan wrangles the other boats before we make the plunge. This is just one of seven Sierra Club Inspiring Connections Outdoors trips during which Keltner’s awe study will take place.

One of the boats holds Craig Anderson, a trim, towering doctoral student who studies with Keltner. He wears a vintage Seattle Mariners cap with a GoPro camera mounted on top, which he uses to tape the kids’ interactions on the rafts before, during, and after rapids. “We can analyze people’s facial expressions muscle by muscle,” he told me earlier. “We can run the vocals through a program. Are people kidding around? Are they calm? Are they working as a team?”

Anderson and Keltner want to study the effect a two-day rafting trip will have on people’s lives, and they suspect that awe will play a major role in the story their data have to tell. Yesterday, the 25-odd students spat into vials and answered survey questions about how often they felt happy, sad, or stressed and how well they’ve been sleeping. They will spit into other vials when the trip ends and fill out similar surveys a month from now. The saliva samples will show how awe correlates with levels of stress hormones and the genes related to dopamine function.

About five miles upriver, the Chile Bar dam has closed its gates, and now what’s left of the river is literally flowing by beneath us. Jordan points to a black band on a boulder. “That rock’s already got three inches of wet. We’ll be carrying our rafts if we don’t ride this faucet.” He calls, “All forward,” and we charge toward Troublemaker.

For a few seconds, we lose ourselves. The drop sucks us into a vortex of froth. A wave plops over the starboard gunwale. And then we shoot out, bow slapping the surface, everyone gasping and soaked. A black granite fin rises up ahead. We fly around a bend into shade, and the water fades from emerald to black. Then it calms and deepens. The kids are all gasping, or smiling, or both. Jordan lets everyone in his boat jump into the water.

Jordan’s been taking his high school students on outings for over a decade. They’ve been to Hawaii and kayaked off Catalina Island, but the rivers of central California are his natural habitat. He wants to take the kids on a snow trip to see where the rivers begin, and “so they remember that there was snow in the Sierra Nevada.” I ask who of the floaters has seen snow, and half of them shoot up their hands.

Jordan stands, gets his balance, and peers downriver—a mariner in a crow’s nest. A kid bobs near the bow. The bands on the boulders are growing. “Get that road kill in the boat,” he says. “We gotta get down this river before the water runs out.”

WHAT'S COOL ABOUT AWE is that it literally blows your mind,” Anderson says, referring to how its stimuli force people to revise their mental frames of reference. We are sitting on the bank watching night come over the canyon. Since we set up camp an hour ago, the beach has grown by 15 feet. The river is at “fish flows,” the minimum level for sustaining life.

“We might do some analyses by raft. We know emotions are contagious. If there was one really awe-prone person, did that make other people feel awe? You might have noticed that in the swimming sections, in one raft, everyone was in the water, and in another, nobody was in the water.”

For much of the night, Anderson can be found sitting on the beach, knees to chest, contemplative, eyes fixed river­ward. He grew up an Eagle Scout in New Mexico. As a young child, he loved watching Star Trek and pondering the show’s moral dilemmas, and he’s still taken by the unfathomable depths of the universe. “I’ve always been into space, thinking about how vast it is. Even now, the hairs are raising on my neck just talking about it.” (Piloerection is a telltale accompaniment to awe.) His favorite awe-eliciting videos are the opening to the movie Contact and a three-­minute clip that begins on Earth’s surface and gradually zooms out to one of the largest known stars in the universe, beside which our planet appears as a mere pixel. He says that he doesn’t often use segments from Planet Earth or other nature documentaries for research because viewers feel intense compassion for the animals, which muddies the results.

Before the light disappears completely, Anderson gets up to distribute paper and pens to the students, who are keeping journals as part of the study.

Today we experienced the little beauties of nature, one writes. I was able to be me and learn about the things around me.

My favorite rapid was Triple Threat. It was scary but fun at the same time, writes another.

The most amazing experience I had on this trip was meeting new people, learning new things about others, and experiencing the events with everyone. Meeting new people lets me see the different kinds of personality of each person and adds spice to life, journals a third student.

I ask Anderson if he thinks feeling awe in nature will make these kids care more about the river that’s trickling by through the dark.

“Generally speaking, yes. They say they feel more connected, not just to people but to the world around them. When you’re having your mind blown like this, people’s self-concerns really aren’t at the front of their minds. All your attention is directed outward, toward the thing that’s eliciting awe, on the outside environment, and on others around you. Also, they’re saying they’re appreciating the beauty of their surroundings, and if you’re appreciating the beauty of something, you want to take care of it. You don’t want to see it ruined.”

The next morning, we have to wait for the water. Jordan sits on a boat for hours, watching as birds putter about in the littoral zone. He sees eight species in the first 10 minutes. They pick bugs out of the mud. The dam’s daily releases determine this ecosystem’s rhythms.

Around 11:30, the river finally shows up, and Jordan calls the kids into a circle. “Let’s go, young scholars! The faucet is on!” His solemn reverence for the river is contagious. The sun peeks over the hills, bringing the temperature up by about 20 degrees.

“We’re going through a really important transition today,” Jordan says. He paces in place as he speaks, his head down as he gathers his thoughts, then he lifts his chin to project. “You’ll see that when we enter the reservoir, the biodiversity disappears. It’s like the reservoir in Oakland.”

For a while, we ride amid pale yellow, dried-out hills, with a few oak trees at the tops. “It takes a lot to live up there,” Jordan says to the kids in our boat. We pound through one rapid after another. Then he brings us into the gorge. The walls rise up and close in, and suddenly everything is greener, even the water, which intermittently bubbles and froths in emerald whirlpools. We spill into Satan’s Cesspool, bounce through Bouncing Rock. I recall a possible explanation that Keltner casually proposed for why, when people are asked to recall awe-inspiring experiences, they so often cite nature. It is Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis: the idea that humans are instinctively fond of living systems and see life-giving power in vigorous water or dense greenery. At some evolutionary level, we think the river looks better at high flow, when the dam allows it through.

That afternoon we emerge into civilization. People are crouched on boulders, panning for gold. A family is sitting in the river on beach chairs. The water is up to their chests. It seems as if they’re waiting for the river to burst through the dam and carry them away.

We take out at a place called Salmon Falls. But there are no falls or salmon. Not anymore. The namesake hydraulics were inundated by the backup behind Folsom Dam in 1955, along with the salmon’s historic spawning route. Now they stop below the dam, where they’re corralled and turned into food. The ecosystem is all but post-natural: lifeless dirt and concrete detritus.

With his call of “young scholars,” Jordan gathers everyone into a circle for one last elegy. “Here we are at Salmon Falls. I’m glad it’s named that. We’re reminded of the salmon that used to migrate up this river into the Sierra Nevada. Now we’ve got a 100-foot dam and a 300-foot dam, and all the salmon are stuck down by Sac State, where we did the tour the other day.”

Jordan is saddened by the way the ecosystem has changed. He cares about the mergansers and red robins and the native weeds being run out by invasive weeds, the thoughtless fish swimming upriver by instinct. He would not be a good subject for an awe study. Too prone toward compassion. The T. rex skeleton would probably make him sad for the dinosaurs.

The kids each say a word to represent the hardest part of the trip and the best part of the trip. For the hardest, they say, pancakes, burning, backstroke, pans, sleeping, rocks, cuticles, revenge, current, flatwater. For the best: teamwork, carnage, stargazing, water, native, swimming, backpaddle, fun, community. Then Anderson distributes vials for the kids to spit in, and everyone returns to the city.

This article was funded by Sierra Club Outdoors.

Jake Abrahamson is Sierra's assistant editor.
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Friday, October 24, 2014

DAN ZAHAVI - Is the Self a Social Construct?


Dan Zahavi is a Danish philosopher and currently Professor of Philosophy at University of Copenhagen. Zahavi writes on phenomenology (especially the philosophy of Edmund Husserl) and philosophy of mind. He has written extensively on topics such as self, self-consciousness, intersubjectivity and social cognition. He is co-editor of the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.

Zahavi is the author of several books, including Self-Awareness and Alterity: A Phenomenological Investigation (1999), Husserl's Phenomenology (Cultural Memory in the Present) (2003), and the classic Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective (2005). You can read selected papers here.

Is the self a social construct?

University of Copenhagen, Denmark


There is a long tradition in philosophy for claiming that selfhood is socially constructed and self-experience intersubjectively mediated. On many accounts, we consequently have to distinguish between being conscious or sentient and being a self. The requirements that must be met in order to qualify for the latter are higher. My aim in the following is to challenge this form of social constructivism by arguing that an account of self which disregards the fundamental structures and features of our experiential life is a non-starter, and that a correct description and account of the experiential dimension must do justice to the first-person perspective and to the primitive form of self-referentiality, mineness or for-me-ness that it entails. I then consider and discuss various objections to this account, in particularly the view that an endorsement of such a minimal notion of self commits one to an outdated form of Cartesianism. In the final part of the paper, I argue that the self is so multifaceted a phenomenon that various complementary accounts must be integrated if we are to do justice to its complexity.

Author's Copy: Forthcoming in Inquiry

There is a long tradition in philosophy for claiming that selfhood is socially constructed and self-experience intersubjectively mediated. It is a view that has had many different voices. According to a widespread reading, Hegel argued that subjectivity is something that can only be achieved within a social context, within a community of minds, and that it has its ground in an intersubjective process of recognition rather than in some immediate form of self-familiarity. In the late 19th and early 20th Century related views were defended in the US by Royce and Mead. According to Royce, “Self-conscious functions are all of them, in their finite, human and primary aspect, social functions, due to habits of social intercourse”(Royce 1898, 196). Mead argued that the self is not something that exists first and then enters into relationship with others, rather it is better characterized as an eddy in the social current (Mead 1962, 182), and he explicitly defined self-consciousness as being a question of becoming “an object to one’s self in virtue of one’s social relations to other individuals”(Mead 1962, 172). Partly playing on the etymological roots of the term “subject”–one is always subject to or of something – Foucault has more recently claimed that individuals acquire their sense of autonomy inside contexts of domination and subordination. Forming subjects and subjecting them to authority were in his view two sides of the same coin. As he wrote at one point, “the subject that is constituted as a subject –that is ‘subjected’ – is one who obeys”(Foucault 1976, 112). On this reading, subjectivity and individuality are not rooted in some free and spontaneous interiority. Rather, we are dealing with categories produced in a system of social organization. By forcing us to think about ourselves in terms that might support moral categories such as guilt and responsibility, the system will be better able to control and manage us. An example found in Althusser illustrates this idea well. When a policeman calls out to someone in the street, “the hailed individual will turn round.”And as Althusser then continues, “By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject”(Althusser 1971, 174).

Without denying that there are significant differences between these various proposals, I think it is fair to say that they are all united in their rejection of the idea that subjectivity and selfhood – and for reasons that will become apparent in the following, I will be using both notions interchangeably –are something innate, automatic and spontaneous. On many accounts, we consequently have to distinguish between being conscious or sentient, and being a self. The requirements that must be met in order to qualify for the latter are higher. More precisely, being a self is an achievement rather than a given, and therefore also something that one can fail at. Selves are not born, but arise in a process of social experience and interchange. Indeed many would consider the self a construction, something more a matter of politics and culture, than of science and nature.

My aim in the following is not to dispute that there are important insights to be found in such claims. However, insofar as they are presented as accounts of the self tout court, rather than as accounts of certain dimensions or aspects of self, I find all of them unpersuasive. I think there is a basic yet crucial aspect of self that they all fail to consider let alone explain. To put it differently, I am opposed to the claim that the self is nothing but a social construct and in the following I will argue against this kind of social reductionism by outlining a more basic experiential notion of self that I consider a necessary precondition for any socially constructed self. This more basic notion is one with a venerable ancestry. It has been defended by various figures in the phenomenological tradition.
Read the whole article.

What Schizophrenia Can Teach Us About Ourselves

This is a pretty good article on schizophrenia from PBS's Nova Next blog. However, they adhere to the standard "biological disease" model of schizophrenia, which is a partial truth, and one that prevents many researchers from looking into the interpersonal antecedents of schizophrenia.

I especially appreciate, however, the take on hearing voices presented in the article. They mention Intervoice, a mostly European organization that holds voice hallucinations to be a natural and non-frightening phenomenon.

I feel it's important to make another point here - a lot of people with PTSD hear voices and how we, as therapists, deal with that is much different (in my opinion) than how we handle the voices in schizophrenia, or even dissociative identity disorder. The voices are qualitatively different in PTSD.

What Schizophrenia Can Teach Us About Ourselves

By Allison Eck on Wed, 22 Oct 2014

“I don’t believe in anything. That’s my cardinal rule. I do it for my mental health. If I believe in God, then I start talking to God and God starts talking to me. As soon as I start believing in something, then it talks to me. So, I don’t believe in anything.”

Sara, whose name we changed to protect her identity, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19 during her senior year at New York University. She had not experienced any trauma as a child—no abuse, no bouts of depression, nothing that would raise any red flags. She led a more or less happy life. But in high school she experimented with drugs, and upon travelling abroad around the same time, she experienced intense culture shock.

This series of events may have been Sara’s personalized recipe for mental illness, cooked up with all the flavors of her unique position in life, her temperament, and her family’s history. Her mind became a prison; she felt as though people were constantly laughing at her. She could no longer distinguish fantasy from reality. She assumed she wouldn’t go back to school.

“I thought that my life was over, that I would never be able to do anything,” she says. “Because that’s what the doctors told me.”

Then she began to hear voices.

The Schizophrenic Brain

Schizophrenia is a disease that afflicts almost all walks of life. Because it can be so debilitating, scientists have been feverishly searching for its genetic basis. In July, researchers affiliated with the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium compared the genomes of nearly 37,000 people with schizophrenia to the genomes of more than 113,000 people without the disease. In the end, they identified 108 locations where the DNA sequence in schizophrenic people tends to differ. The finding was a major advance in the field of psychiatric genomics, one that could ultimately help scientists understand who is susceptible and why.

Still, the biological markers aren’t always clear—often, a patient’s genes for schizophrenia can lay dormant until certain circumstances trigger their expression, making a diagnosis based on DNA alone less than clear-cut. And with no blood test or brain scan available to detect schizophrenia’s symptoms elsewhere in the body, diagnosis is based almost entirely on what the patient reports.

Treatment of mental illness is nested in confusion, too. Many therapists approach their practice from a different medical perspective than a cognitive psychologist or a geneticist. And while a geneticist might have access to the most current research, she isn’t going to have direct daily contact with a patient’s behavioral nuances like a psychiatrist. What’s going on in the lab, in other words, is often divorced from what’s being implemented “on the couch.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Some scientists are arguing that our new understanding of a particular network in the brain is allowing neuroscientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists—even artists and writers—to understand each other in ways that wouldn’t have made sense ten years ago. Called the default mode network, or DMN, it’s a set of brain regions that are typically suppressed when a person is engaged in an external task (playing a sport, working on a budget), but activated during a so-called “resting state” (sitting quietly, day-dreaming).

“It’s an extremely important platform for any kind of thought that is disengaged from the ‘here-and-now,’" says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute. That includes processing other people’s stories, reflecting on our own lives, planning for the future, or making important decisions. Immordino-Yang says the default mode network is “metabolically expensive.” In other words, when your head is lost in the clouds, your brain is hard at work.

The default mode network, which is hyperactive in schizophrenic people, plays an important role in self-reflection, identity, and mind-wandering.

Though not the only “resting state” network that’s active when we’re staring off into space, the DMN is unusual in that it is reliable and identifiable, making it easy for scientists to study. Like a web of taut ropes overlaying and intersecting one another, the regions of the DMN—which include the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate, both of which are involved in self-awareness, self-reflection, and so on—light up in concert, despite any distance separating them.

When neurologist Marcus Raichle and his colleagues discovered the DMN in 2001, it took the scientific community by surprise. How could rest and self-reflection excite the same brain regions in us all? Why are those regions so intimately correlated? Wouldn’t a brain scan vary more from person to person depending on the content of an individual’s thoughts? It turned out that the DMN has nothing to do with content and everything to do with context. This network is functioning all the time—focusing on a task merely tempers and subdues it.

“This is first time we’ve found a neural system that actually reveals your inner self,” says Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, a research scientist at MIT. In 2009, she and her colleagues found that in schizophrenic people, the DMN operates on overdrive. When clinically diagnosed patients enter an fMRI scanner and are asked to perform various tasks, the dial on their DMN doesn’t turn down like it should. And when the patients are at rest, their DMN is hyper-connected, buzzing with surplus energy. What’s more, they lack the ability to toggle out of the DMN, this highly self-referential state of being. “They’re actually stuck in their default mode network,” Whitfield-Gabrieli says.

So how does a schizophrenic person get unstuck? That’s a question hundreds of experts from diverse backgrounds are trying to answer.

Coping with Voices

One lens through which experts are studying schizophrenia is anthropology. If the default mode network is related to identity and self-reflection—and if schizophrenia, in turn, is associated with the default mode network—then considering culture may help us understand how psychosis manifests itself globally. After all, how you experience your inner world depends partly on where you live and how you’ve grown up. The same is true of mental illness. “When immigrant groups move to a new cultural group, they take on the mental illness liabilities of the culture where they are,” Immordino-Yang says. Because 60 to 80% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia hear voices, a good indicator of how a given culture views the disease might be how its people cope with its most well known but most misunderstood facets: auditory verbal hallucinations.

“Americans hate their voices. Their voices mean schizophrenia to them,” says Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University. By contrast, people in India and Africa don’t typically label their illnesses or their voices, she revealed in a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. “It’s not that they don’t recognize that they’re struggling,” she says. “But they talk about their experience as having much more of a natural role.” For example, they may think of their auditory hallucinations as benevolent or spiritual—like a friend or even the voice of God.

People not diagnosed with a mental illness, too, hear voices. In some cases, what they experience may be something that would be classified as a hallucination if reported by a clinically psychotic person. “If you ask someone, ‘have you ever heard a voice when you’re alone?’ the rate is somewhere between 15 to 80% depending on how you ask the question,” Luhrmann says. If you couple it with an example of what might be considered an auditory verbal hallucination, the percentage of people who say “yes” goes up.

Testimonies from people who experience varying kinds of auditory hallucinations support the idea that voice-hearing is complex and culturally-dependent. Their range of experiences is vast. Some say they hear audible, crystalline voices that emanate from inside their heads. Others report cacophonous screeches and bangs coming from outside their bodies. Still others sense murmurs and whispers that crawl over from the next room. Finally, some people describe a phenomenon similar to what cognitive psychologists call “inner speech,” the wordless soup of dialogue that you “hear” when deep in thought. For some, inner speech is acoustically more intense than it is for others. For example, they might say their mental landscape is made up of “loud thoughts” or “soundless voices.”

For Sara, the voices she heard began as disembodied, made-up personalities. Then, after about a year of taking a handful of different medications to varying degrees of success, her voices became solely associated with real people and their private thoughts. Sara is now 33—and though she’s been well enough to go without medication for 11 years, she still hears this latter type of voice.

“If I hear somebody psychically communicating with me—which I don’t believe in; I’m a complete atheist—then the sound will come from above their head or behind their hair…even from inside their stomach. It’s somewhere besides their actual mouth,” she says. “It’s not as loud as their real voice. It’s softer, but I don’t think the tone and quality of the voice is compromised.”

The reason why Sara can talk about her voices so intelligently is because she’s cultivated a relationship with them, in a sense. Though she tries not to engage too much with them, she’s learned to understand her voices and even use them to her advantage. If she’s bored, they’re sometimes entertaining. Occasionally she even asks them questions.

“Sometimes I’m worried about what people think of me,” she says. “And so I ask them [what they think of me] in the air above their head, and I hear their voice say it.”

Sara enjoys and even values some of her auditory hallucinations now, which is atypical of most American psychotic and post-psychotic patients. But that’s not the case everywhere. A simple internet search in her early 20s led Sara to Intervoice, a network established in the U.K. and now widely recognized in 29 (mostly European) countries. The organization’s central tenet is that hearing voices is a meaningful human experience and not necessarily a sign of mental illness. Members set up support groups where people can meet and talk about their experiences without fear of stigma.

Still, Intervoice has not caught on in the U.S. like it has in the U.K. and elsewhere. “There are real differences in the way Americans and Europeans think about voices,” Luhrmann says. In Europe, people are generally more comfortable with the ambiguity between psychosis and religion, and there’s more interest in applying humanities research to medicine.

For Sara, the idea that people could handle and live with their voices made the difference. “I decided I was going to be one of those people,” she says. “Just a small glimmer of hope was all I needed.”

Angela Woods, a medical humanities researcher at Durham University in the U.K., is leading a team of experts in a project called “Hearing the Voice,” which works closely with the broader Intervoice network. It aims to dispel some of the myths about voice-hearing and to see how cognitive neuroscientists can work with writers, artists, clinicians, theologians, and even philosophers to grasp the full spectrum of schizophrenia itself.

A "Voice Walk" in a U.K. cemetery earlier this year encouraged voice-hearers to tell their stories.

“We wanted to call for a more nuanced, richer account of what it is like to hear voices,” Woods says. An initial step in their research involved sending surveys to 158 people from around the world in an attempt to better understand what the experience is like. The team has hosted a number of different events to raise public awareness of schizophrenia and its many shades, including a “VoiceWalk” in a U.K. cemetery to bring people’s voice-hearing stories to the fore and an event at the Durham Book Festival to promote a better understanding of how writers cope with disparate inner voices—their characters, their muse, their narrators, and so on.

Another way people can learn to cope with their voices is by bringing them into the lab. Whitfield-Gabrieli, in collaboration with Margaret Niznikiewicz of Harvard University, is training patients to regulate their auditory hallucinations by consciously controlling activation in their auditory cortex. Participants attempt to push their cortex activation levels up and down, without receiving any auditory stimuli other than the background noise of the fMRI scanner. Meanwhile, they receive visual feedback from the fMRI on their progress. Whitfield-Gabrieli says the hope is that patients can learn to mitigate their voices by focusing on what’s going on in their own brain.

“Teaching people with psychosis to use their imagination to handle their voices is a promising tool,” Luhrmann says. As a society, we can encourage positive relationships with auditory hallucinations by helping patients—schizophrenic or not—better understand them. That means allowing people to tag their voices as “me” or “not me,” give the voices names, recognize what they’re saying and why, and discover what personal significance, if any, a particular voice might have.

Whatever the auditory input may be, Luhrmann says people can have positive or negative experiences depending on the attitude they adopt. “People attend to different pieces of that good-bad spectrum depending on the way their culture invites them to attend,” she says.

While there’s no evidence yet that a learning-based method will work, Whitfield-Gabrieli has reason to believe it’s possible. Research has linked increased DMN activity to the phenomenon of voice-hearing. While scientists still aren’t entirely certain how or why people hear voices, they think that auditory hallucinations may be a misattributed form of inner speech. A hyperactive DMN agitates the auditory cortex, resulting in what could be a fundamental confusion between what the brain “hears” inside itself and what it actually hears as a result of real, external stimuli. Many factors, though—including social isolation—contribute to the health of a person’s brain. Imagination can help with the healing process and reclaim a functioning relationship between the self, the auditory cortex, and inner speech.

Woods’ and Luhrmann’s work—as well as their colleagues’—dovetails with a study published about a month ago in the American Journal of Psychiatry, which concluded that the term “schizophrenia” actually encompasses eight genetically distinct disorders, not just one. The assertion, whether or not it holds up, suggests that mental well being comes in a variety of different “packages” depending on your genetic makeup. That goes for clinically diagnosed patients as well as healthy individuals.

“We should be wary of seeing a schizophrenic person as someone with a kind of deficiency,” Woods says. Rather, it may be just another part of what it means to be human. A person might simply process language differently or ruminate on social interactions for too long. His or her inner speech might be more fragmented or circuitous. Individual differences in DMN activity account for the diverse ways the human mind freely wanders.

Searching for Answers

The default mode network may sound like a gold mine to psychiatrists and neuroscientists alike. The reality, though, is somewhat more complicated. Brain imaging, while promising, has yet to definitively solve major mental health issues like schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

Daniel Margulies of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences argues that even if our scientific understanding of the DMN evolves, its weight in the science world has “opened up a way of talking about the relationship between the self and these disorders.” The default mode network (and its relationship to voice-hearing), he says, can provide a gateway to understanding the full range of how people comprehend themselves—even if anomalies in the network aren’t proven to be a direct cause of schizophrenia.

That may be what matters most, since schizophrenia is not necessarily about neurons or synapses. It’s about the people it affects.

“Technology is giving us important information, but not the final answers,” says David Farb, professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at the Boston University School of Medicine. He advocates an approach that views diseases and disorders as “vast and complex chimeras of symptoms that can be mixed and matched.” For example, depression may share symptoms with other disorders, like severe anxiety. It’s also possible, he says, that a person may develop an anxiety disorder as they grow increasingly self-conscious of their schizophrenia, for example. In that case, Farb says that schizophrenia may be made even more complex by “an expression of learned helplessness.”

By acquiring as much genetic and neurological information about a patient as possible, we may be able to intervene at an earlier stage and prevent schizophrenia before it develops. Whitfield-Gabrieli and Larry Seidman of Harvard University are studying at-risk people in Shanghai to find brain markers that predict whether or not someone will become schizophrenic. Interestingly, they’ve noticed a skew toward more female than male schizophrenic patients in China; in the U.S, schizophrenia is a predominantly male disorder, again pointing to the cultural element.

And that is what’s so striking to the U.K. researchers associated with Hearing the Voice. We shouldn’t assume that nature (rather than nurture) is the primary culprit when it comes to schizophrenia, they say. “If the default mode network is somehow connected with mind-wandering, self-referential cognition, you can’t simply use objective measures,” says Felicity Callard, another Durham University researcher involved in the project. “You have to get at what people think is going on in their own heads.” In other words, to find a cure, we might have to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes.

“We should direct energy and funding and resources into exploring people’s lives—not just their chemistry, their neuroanatomy, or their genes,” Woods says. PSTD, for example, is a legitimate response to a traumatic event. Likewise, schizophrenia is a legitimate response to a lifetime of accumulated events, thoughts, interactions, and engrained beliefs. “We need to be able to ask, ‘What happened to you?’ That’s not ruling genetics out, but it’s taking things from another angle.”

Farb suspects the answer might be simpler than that. Drugs that target genes regulating DMN connectivity or surgery that modifies key points of DMN activity, for example, could resolve schizophrenic symptoms. He acknowledges, though, that there may be other factors at play. Schizophrenia—like PTSD or chronic pain—may have a cumulative effect on the brain that’s hard to anticipate. “While we may be able to correct the original deficit, we may still be left with others because they are a consequence of all of those years spent living with the disorder,” he says. “It’s really complicated to get a cure.”

As a patient, Sara believes that the process needs to be individualized. Doctors should ask patients questions about their experiences and how they want to go about getting better. Woods agrees. “The more we treat schizophrenia as a mysterious entity that we’re going to pin down in a piece of DNA,” she says, “the more we’ll miss the complicated, multifaceted aspects of existence that go into making someone have an experience of psychosis.”

“And if people don’t feel as though they’re able to tell stories about their experiences, then it’s hard to see that a cure would be particularly welcome, rich, or meaningful.”

Tell us what you think on Twitter #novanext, Facebook, or email.

Photo Credits: © Frederic Cirou/PhotoAlto/Corbis, Angela Woods

Allison Eck

Allison Eck is a production assistant for NOVA Online.

Other posts from this contributor

The Restorative Power of Nature for Dealing with Psycho-Physiological Stress

The healing powers of nature can be very profound. The experience of calm, peace, or awe (subjective) no doubt contributes to the neurochemical changes in the brain (objective) that reduce anxiety and depression, as well as helping us cope better with stress.

Full Citation:
Berto, R. (2014, Oct 21). The Role of Nature in Coping with Psycho-Physiological Stress: A Literature Review on Restorativeness. Behavioral Sciences; 4(4), 394-409; doi:10.3390/bs4040394

The Role of Nature in Coping with Psycho-Physiological Stress: A Literature Review on Restorativeness

(This article belongs to the Special Issue Advances in Environmental Psychology)

Physical settings can play a role in coping with stress; in particular experimental research has found strong evidence between exposure to natural environments and recovery from physiological stress and mental fatigue, giving support to both Stress Recovery Theory and Attention Restoration Theory. In fact, exposure to natural environments protects people against the impact of environmental stressors and offer physiological, emotional and attention restoration more so than urban environments. Natural places that allow the renewal of personal adaptive resources to meet the demands of everyday life are called restorative environments. Natural environments elicit greater calming responses than urban environments, and in relation to their vision there is a general reduction of physiological symptoms of stress. Exposure to natural scenes mediates the negative effects of stress reducing the negative mood state and above all enhancing positive emotions. Moreover, one can recover the decrease of cognitive performance associated with stress, especially reflected in attention tasks, through the salutary effect of viewing nature. Giving the many benefits of contact with nature, plans for urban environments should attend to restorativeness.

This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

1. Introduction

This brief review attempts to draw greater attention to the role of the physical environment in stress recovery and psychological restoration processes. As people interact daily with physical settings, the physical environment can heighten stress or help people cope with it. “Stress” can be defined as the condition that results when person-environment transactions lead the individual to perceive a discrepancy (whether real or not) between the demands of a situation and the biological, psychological or social resources of the individual [1]. The negative effects of stress can be measured in various ways inside and out of the laboratory and these measures fall into three categories: those that rely on (1) neuro-physiological or bodily changes in the individual experiencing stress, (2) performance or behavioral changes and (3) self-report by individuals. The present paper updates and reviews the literature from each area, discussed separately.

In Psychology, most theoretical accounts of stress effects invoke some variation of the inverted U-hypothesis relating arousal to performance [2], with both high and low levels of arousal causing reduced performance. However, other theories account for effects of stress on cognition, specifically on attention allocation, with stress overloading attentional capacity for the deployment of attention itself and other resources [1]. Except for social support (operationalized primarily in terms of family, socio-cultural and economic conditions), Health Psychology has directed attention away from environmental factors that can be coping resources, whereas research and theories in Environmental Psychology point also to certain kind of environments that have the capacity to facilitate recovery of depleted resources. Environmental conditions are antecedent factors in stress-related mechanisms interceding between environment and health: they might operate as an environmental stressor, straining human adaptive capacities, or as a coping strategy, re-establishing some balance between environmental demands and personal resources. People rarely respond to stressful conditions passively, instead they use coping strategies. The physical environment can damage or ameliorate coping resources, thus heightening or reducing stress themselves. 

2. The Mechanisms and Theoretical Approaches Underlying the Phenomenon

Experimental research has found evidence that restoration from stress and from mental fatigue relates to exposure to nature [3,4]. Natural environments protect people against the impact of environmental stressors and offer physiological, emotional and attention restoration more so than do urban environments. Natural places that allow a shift towards more positively-toned emotional states, positive changes in physiological activity levels, and in behavior and cognitive functioning are called restorative environments [5,6]. For pragmatic and theoretical reasons [7] nature scenes dominated by green vegetation have been the most frequently studied among restorative environments, with a relatively high success rate [8]. Exposure to nature is a coping strategy, which has positive effects on both arousal/activation level and cognitive overload. Arousal theories [9,10] imply that recuperation from excessive arousal should occur more rapidly in settings having low levels of arousal. Since natural settings tend to have lower levels of arousal properties, such as complexity, intensity and movement than urban environments [11], they should have comparatively restorative influences on stress. The alternative overload perspectives provide a different explanation of why recuperation following a stressor may be more rapid when external stimulation is comparatively low. High complexity and other increasing-stimulation properties typical of urban settings, place taxing processing demands [12] and elicit more sustained attention than nature settings; accordingly restoration from cognitive overload is hampered.

Research on restorative environments has developed within two complementary theoretical positions: the Stress Recovery Theory (SRT) [13] and the Attention Restoration Theory (ART) [6]; the former is a psycho-evolutionary theory, while the latter a psycho-functionalist. The evolutionary perspective contends that because humans evolved over a long period in natural environments, people are to some extent physiologically and perhaps psychologically adapted to natural, as opposed to urban settings [4]. To functionalist, humans have an unlearned predisposition to pay attention and respond positively to natural content (e.g., vegetation, water) and to configurations characteristic of settings that were favorable to survival during evolution [5,13,14,15]. Although in both theories natural environments are more restorative than urban or artificial environments, they differ in what drives individuals toward a restorative place: In SRT it is physiological stress, whereas in ART it is mental fatigue. These theories complement one another, in that the elevated physiological arousal and negative affect characteristic of stress (SRT) can occur in absence of mental fatigue. Conversely elevated arousal or negative affect do not always accompany attentional fatigue (ART); attentional fatigue can be considered a stress aftereffect and treated as a condition that increases vulnerability to stress [3,4,6,12,16].

Research related to these two theories agrees on two findings: (1) Environmental preference is affected by people’s need to get restoration [17,18,19,20,21,22]; (2) Environments perceived as natural tend to be more restorative than environments perceived to be urban or artificial e.g., [3,23,24,25,26,27,28]. In fact, research shows restoration related to environmental preference, but the direction of the effect remains unclear; however the positive linear correlation between the perception of place restorative qualities and environmental preference may suggest that the general preference for natural environment can be explained by individual conviction that “psycho-physiological” restoration occurs easier in natural environments. In practice people prefer natural environments because those places allow maintaining or enhancing psycho-physiological wellbeing.

Mental fatigue gives higher preference for the natural over the urban environment [22]. Nature is especially conducive to our involuntary attention engagement; on the contrary built content captures attention dramatically, requiring attention to be overcome [6,8,24]. In the ART this attention-drawing quality of natural settings is referred to as “soft fascination” [6]. When nature captures people’s attention, the executive system that regulates directed attention gets to rest, pessimistic thoughts are blocked, and negative emotions are replaced by positive ones [29]. In addition to fascination, nature is characterized also by other properties called restorative factors, which work together with fascination. Actually, the renewal of a depleted capacity also occurs with a physical and/or psychological “being-away” from demands on directed attention, a sense of “extent”, i.e., being in a large enough world where “coherence” and “scope” are perceived in the environment, and “compatibility” between one’s inclinations and the environmental demands, for more details see [6,21,23].

The research does not claim that the restorative experience can occur only in natural environments, nor does it state that all urban environments lack restorative qualities [30,31]. For example, some natural environments would not likely be restorative because they are perceived as dangerous [32,33], and some urban environments, such historical environments [18], museums [34], or monasteries [35], can sustain restoration because they have to some extent restorative qualities, are easily approachable and so compatible with the little free time of the majority of the inhabitants of the city [36,37]. Accordingly the involuntary attentive process might be activated also by the vision of urban environments [31], but only if environmental information is fascinating, i.e., doesn’t overload the attentive system [38], as nature does. ART claims that fascination is a restorative characteristic of an environment related to information processing, therefore suitable urban-artificial solutions can sometime fill the gap due to the lack of nature [30,31,39]. 

3. The Direct and Indirect Effects of Natural Environments

Central to the recovery from psycho-physiological stress are positive changes in emotional states. Exposure to natural environments produce positive mood chances, actually exposure to natural stimuli can mediate the negative effect of stress reducing the negative mood state and at the same time enhancing positive emotions. In particular, natural settings have restorative influences on three affective dimensions: positive affects, anger/aggression, and fear [4,40,41]. Moreover, people report more positive emotions (such as friendliness) and fewer negative emotions (such as sadness) when viewing urban scenes with trees than when viewing the same scenes with inanimate objects [42]. In contrast, exposure to environments lacking of natural elements can produce anxiety, anger, frustration and sadness [43,44]. The association between environment and emotions leads people to assess natural environment on the opportunity they offer to regulate mood, in practice preference for natural environments arises from the favourable effects on mood of such environments [45].

The positive emotional states elicited by viewing natural stimuli are part of the mechanism underlying the landmark Ulrich’s [46] finding that hospital patients had more favorable recovery (shorter post-operative hospital stays, lower scores post-surgical complications, fewer negative comments in nurses’ notes, fewer strong analgesic intake) if their windows overlooked trees rather than a brick building wall. Exposure to nature can reduce anxiety, improve pain control and patients’ satisfaction with the procedure [47,48]. One study found that the exposure to natural environments (pleasant stimuli) effectively distracted patients from stressful or painful conditions [47]. Another study found that heart-rates and self-reports of emotional state of patients in dental clinics improved with exposure to natural environments [49]; patients felt calmer on days when a mural depicting a natural scene was on the wall then on days when the wall was blank. To this end, Diette et al. [47] recommended the routine clinical use of nature sights and sounds of sights. The use of nature scenes was shown to be an effective tool for “distraction”, i.e., patient’s attention is focused on a pleasant stimulus and away from a stressful or painful condition. Research in prisons has shown that prisoners whose cell windows offered views of farmland and trees had lower frequencies of stress symptoms such as digestive illness and headaches, and fewer sick calls than prisoners whose cell windows offered views of the prison courtyard [50,51].

The negative effects of psycho-physiological stress can also manifest with significant decreases of cognitive performance. However, people can recover cognitive efficiency simply taking advantage of the beneficial effect deriving from exposure to nature. For example, children playing in highly natural school playgrounds showed fewer attention and concentration problems, and improved cognitive and physical functioning than children playing in less natural school playgrounds, for a review [52]. At workplace, a view of natural elements was found to buffer the negative impact of job stress, intention to quit and it had a positive effect on general wellbeing and cognitive functioning [53,54]. The most significant understanding of nature’s salutary effect on cognition comes through studies of attention. Research has shown that natural settings might have restorative effects that include increased performance on task requiring attention and cognitive processing [5,23,55,56,57]. Cognitive restoration following visual exposure to the natural environment, as reflected in improved performance on attentional tasks, has been established in a variety of experimental studies involving either the use of videos [17] or actual field trips [3,58,59], or image slideshows of natural scenes [23,55]. Kaplan’s ART [6] gives a convincing explanation of what makes up the so-called “psychological restoration.” The theory originated when it was noticed that people preferred scenes depicting natural than urban environments, and exposure to natural environments had a profound restorative effect on the ability to focus, in practice people’s attention was easily and almost effortlessly held. The tenets of this theory state that a person can engage two types of attention: involuntary and voluntary, for more details see [60]. The former is a rather effortless form of attention, in contrast the latter, otherwise called directed attention, requires a good deal of focus and effort that leads inevitably to mental fatigue. The mental fatigue state increases the probability that an individual experiences the stress response due to the cognitive overload, and the concomitant reduction of the cognitive resources necessary to address daily requests. Mental/attentional fatigue manifests itself in negative emotions, irritability, impulsiveness, impatience, reduced tolerance for frustration, insensitivity to interpersonal cues, decrease altruistic behaviors, reduced performance, increased likelihood of taking risks [58,61,62,63,64], generally speaking in reduced competence and/or decreased effectiveness in functioning [58,63]. In practice, the inability to renew the attentional capacity aggravates the mental fatigue state and can also damage mood, work performance and interpersonal relationships.

Nature may not only have direct effects on stress recovery and mental fatigue restoration, but it may also have indirect effects by serving as a buffer against the health impacts of stressful events [65]. Many people seek out nature in time for stress. Unfortunately due to increasing urbanization, modern people’s homes have become more removed from green environments [65]. Restricted access to green spaces may increase people’s vulnerability to the impact of stressful life events and environmental stressors affecting physical and psychological wellbeing. Higher accessibility to park/forest-like area correlates with higher happiness, lower stress, anger, depression and tension, improved mood and concentration [17]. In particular, the amount of green space within a radius of 1–3 km relates to perceived general health [66].

Thus, urban green besides making our cities more appealing, gives relief from stressful life, and an opportunity to recover cognitive resources and restore the optimal level of physiological activation [5,13,44,67]. This can have positive effects on sense of control, privacy, encouraging personal relationships and physical exercise, and offering natural fascinating distractions that promotes positive emotions and mood. Loss of control and the lack of privacy can aggravate the stress condition and threaten individual’s capacity to cope with stressful situations [68]. Exposure to nature offers the opportunity to display control through a “temporary being-away” or “temporary escape” from reality. Estrangement from habits/routines means to go away from the source of stress. ]Regarding social support. Outdoor spaces and gardens can promote social relationships and enhance the sense of community. Mental health services engage nature-related programs (horticulture, gardening) to provide opportunities that enhance multiple aspects of health and wellbeing, increase constructive interpersonal relationships that enhance social inclusion, and support the destigmatization of mental illnesses [69,70]. Participants benefit from the increase of positive emotions, expand healthy relationships with peers and staff, improve physical activity, have greater involvement in familiarity within the community and exhibit skills that enable acceptance in the community and the perception of being part of the community [71]. Active participation in nature has additionally been found to reduce mental distress, enhance self-confidence and improve physical health of the participants [72].

The recognition of nature’s health benefits has brought to broader discussion on public health and also inspired practical applications. In particular psychologists have begun to study whether technology can salvage some of nature’s healthful properties [73]. Although virtual nature may not replace actual nature, people who are not able to go outside can benefit from exposure to virtual nature [74]. When real nature is not at hand, surrogate (artificial plants, potted plants) or simulation (pictures of nature, films, slides) of nature are accepted at work, in hospitals or institutions providing restorative effects such as improved affect and decreased physiological stress [17,75]. In particular, the immersion in a virtual computer-generated nature setting has been found to be a valid therapeutic aid in treatment of anxiety disorders and an effective tool in stress management and relaxation [76,77]. Virtual settings are enriched with a variety of positive visual and auditory stimulation that affect self-efficacy and mood; the virtual reality (VR) scenario-experience is vivid and real and induces a high sense of “presence” that affects relaxation and the emotional response. 

4. How to Measure the Effects of Natural Environments

4.1. Physiological Effects

Though their concern was not to compare the effects of natural vs. urban settings, back in 1963 Wadeson et al. [78] found evidence that exposure to natural environments had a direct influence on urine and blood levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone. More recently, literature has shown that independently from the type of exposure: plants, poster, slides, video, VR settings or views of natural environments/stimuli, people experience a general reduction of symptoms related to psycho-physiological stress. Natural environments elicit greater calming physiological and psychological responses than urban environments. The SRT [13] proposes exactly that perceiving particular qualities and contents in a place can support recovery from physiological stress. Using a paradigm in which stressed individuals were exposed to simulations of either natural or urban environments, Ulrich encompassed the range of restorative effects of the natural environments on human beings [4,13,46,79]. Research showed different rates of recovery from stress depending upon the type of environmental exposure. Physiological measures of stress (e.g., electromyography, skin conductance response, pulse transit time, cardiac response, partial thromboplastin time) indicated that recovery was quicker and more complete in the natural environment exposure conditions, even when recovery was measured over a 10-minute period only [79]. In the initial minutes of recovery the parasympathetic component response was recorded to the natural environments, whereas there was no evidence of the parasympathetic involvement in response to the urban settings. The parasympathetic system, often called “relax and renew,” is the branch of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) responsible for recuperating and returning to a balanced state (homeostasis) after experiencing a stressful situation; it reacts to return the body to a state of equilibrium by slowing down heart rate, dilating blood vessels, activating digestion, and storing energy. In contrast, the sympathetic system, the other branch of the ANS, activates in response to stressors; it is also known as the “fight or flight” response [80], because its activation is central in the taxing mobilization involved in responding to unexpected stressful events.

The relaxing effect of nature is supported by electroencephalogram (EEG) data as well. EEG measures are sensitive to conditions such as fatigue and sleep deprivation. If so, perhaps neuro-physiological measures, such as the EEG or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), might be used to differentiate stress states of the organism from normal or restored states. Unstressed subjects who viewed slides of natural landscapes and urban scenes [79], or single natural elements such as plants with flowers and pots without plants [81], or who were seated in an outdoor setting watching greenery or a concrete block fence [82] had greater brain electrical activity in the alpha frequency range. High alpha amplitude is associated with lower level of physiological arousal as well as feeling of wakeful relaxation [79]. Generally, feeling of anxiety are related to high arousal and accordingly to low alpha amplitude. All these results suggest that subjects are less aroused physiologically and more relaxed but wakeful, during exposure to natural stimuli. EEG studies identify tranquility as an outcome of viewing natural settings [83]. Recently, Korean researchers used the fMRI to investigate brain activation patterns in participants viewing nature vs. urban scenes [84]. The urban scenes showed enhanced activity in the amygdala, which is linked to impulsivity, anxiety and increased stress. By contrast, the natural scenes promoted activity in the anterior cingulate and the insula – where increased activity is associated with heightened empathy and altruistic behavior. 
4.2. Behavioral Effects
A logical extension of attention restoration theory is that people deprived of nature will display behaviors caused by weary minds: inhibition is essential to delay and reflection, lacking this capability an individual behaves in a less adaptive and appropriate fashion [6]. Moreover, without the patience and endurance necessary to carry out difficult or unpleasant tasks, performance becomes more oriented to the short term. In fact, directed attention fatigue not only leads to the inability to focus, but it has also several unfortunate consequences, including performance errors, inability to plan, social incivility and irritability [6]. Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan [85] found also a relationship between exposure to nature and self-control; in studying a group of girls living in the same housing complex, the researchers found that those with greener views scored higher than those deprived of nature on several tasks related to discipline, higher concentration, inhibited impulsivity and ability to delay gratification. Regarding social behavior, which also depends upon inhibition, it becomes less appropriate and there is also a greater inclination to be impulsive, to take unnecessary risks, and to act in an impatient and hasty manner. Kuo and Sullivan [86] reported significantly lower levels of aggression and violence in residents with apartments near nature than in those who looked onto barren lands; the researchers suggested that if fatigued attention is related to irritability, and irritability leads to impulsivity and aggression, then perhaps people deprived of nature’s restorative qualities would be overly aggressive. In general, exposure to nature enhances sense of attachment, social life, mental and physical health, quality of life and the occurrence of activities and events that enhance wellbeing. In particular, green vegetation in neighborhood common spaces correlates with stronger ties, higher sense of safety and adjustment [87], less aggressive behavior, and fewer property and violent crimes reported to the police than areas without greenery [86].

Views of nature affect driving as well. Comparing the physiological responses of subjects who watched a video driving through nature with those who watched a drive through more built-up environments, Parsons et al. [88] found that the nature-group displayed lower levels of stress and recovered more quickly from the stress they experienced. Views of dense vegetation (vs. sparse and mixed) enhance in fact drivers’ ability to tolerate frustration [89]. 
4.3. Self-Report Measures

Quantifiable measures of restoration are the key to understand how restorative mechanisms work, and research on the buffering effects of nature among stressed or mentally fatigued individuals has mostly relied on physiological and cognitive measures as outcome variables. However, together with physiological, behavioral and performance measurements there are also self-report measures aimed to assess the restorative value of real places/pictures, i.e., the degree of perceived restorativeness of a setting. To this aim, the majority of the studies have used the Perceived Restorativeness Scale (PRS). The scale based on the ART, which appeared in 1997 [25,26], aimed to measure the presence of the four theoretical restorative factors (being-away, fascination, extent, compatibility) in the environment. From then on, the PRS has been widely used not only to compare the restorative value of natural and urban settings, but also to measure perceived restorativeness of outdoor activities [90,91], vacation destination [92], zoo and small public parks [93,94,95], and it has appeared with different names, e.g., Restorative Outcome Scale [96], Revised Perceived Restorativeness Scale [97], Perceived Restorative Characteristics Questionnaire [94], PRS-short version [23], but questions about the scale validity/reliability remain.

Since the PRS appearance researchers have differed on the number of items making up the scale and on its factorial structure [97,98]. However, research has confirmed, through the PRS, both the positive correlation between environmental preference and perceived restorativeness, and the lack of correlation between familiarity on perceived restorativeness [21,99]. Furthermore, research using the PRS found that the higher restorative value of natural versus urban or artificial settings did not differ with gender or age [100]. Primary school children can discriminate the restorative value of environments varying in their degree of naturalness [101], and assess natural environment more restorative than school environments and playground [102].

Regarding the PRS factorial structure, Pasini et al. [103] have shed light on the psychometric characteristics of the scale. After a detailed understanding of the meaning of PRS individual items with the method of cognitive interviews, which is the proper starting point for the development of a self-rating scale, Pasini et al. [103] ended up in an 11-item. Using Confirmatory Factor Analysis to compare five models based on previously published research and underlying theory, the researchers found that a four-factor model that mirrored the four factors of ART, had the best fit to the data. The resulting 11-item PRS was also invariant across nationality and gender.

The PRS-11 is less concerned with people’s environmental preference. Instead, it addresses the perceived “cognitive” supportiveness of the environment in relation to individual’s psychological wellbeing. It assesses aspects of purposive behaviors to avoid mental fatigue, and the cognitive fit between person and environment is indicative of a “no-mental fatigue” state in relation to the environment, and not only of how an environment is restorative. For this reason the PRS-11 can help researchers and community planners who can both rely on a valid, reliable, brief and easy to comprehend instrument. In fact, for people interested in people’s wellbeing, it is the subjective fit which is essential, i.e., the perceived supportiveness of the environment in connection with the personal goal to recover from mental fatigue.

The PRS-11 assumes that people’s subjective appraisal of their environments provides a reasonable, straightforward index of the quality of their psychological restoration experiences in those settings. However the complex psycho-physiological pathways of stress make measurement via one single measure insufficient. Moreover the issue of which type of measure (behavioral, self-report or neuro-physiological) is the better or more appropriate measure of stress effects is far from settled. Stress impacts physical and mental health and a number of inter-personal differences have been found to impact on the ways we experience and interact with green space, they are gender [104], age [105], culture/ethnicity [106], interests/expertise [107] and it is a matter of fact that different “extraneous” variables are associated with restorative experiences in favorite settings [96]. Nevertheless, the relationship between perceived restorativeness and stress measures has not been firmly established. To this end, considering the different kinds of measures (self-report, physiological, behavioral, task performance) a multi-method multi trait study (MMMTS) would allow assessing the adequacy, namely if the PRS-11 fits with other measures of stress or recovery. However, the conceptual formulation of the trait “perceived cognitive supportiveness/perceived restorativeness” implicitly includes the proposition that this trait can be meaningfully differentiated by other traits. 

5. Conclusions

Given the many benefits from contact with nature, plans for urban settings should consider the human need for restoration. For this, research must offer practical guidelines for the accessibility and quality of urban green areas. A well-designed urban landscape can contribute to creating a less stressful day [108] and to providing an opportunity for physical, cognitive and emotional restoration [36]. Thus, research can help integrate natural elements and structural features into built environments [109] in order to plan urban environments that are “cognitive sustainable” and restorative from mental fatigue and the stresses of urban life [30,110].

Empirical evidence on the stress reduction from exposure to natural settings agrees with both SRT and ART. However, the findings are unclear about whether active or passive involvement with nature is preferable for restorative benefits, and whether restorative outcomes (both physiological and cognitive) vary with the length of exposure to natural stimuli. According to adaptation level theory [111,112] people adapt (or get accustomed) to their environments. If that applies to exposure to natural environments, then people surrounded by nature might require a higher dose (a sort of threshold) to recover from stress and mental fatigue than would people surrounded by buildings. On the other hand, their long-term exposure may inoculate them from stress. Research could also consider effects related to different kinds and form of nature, as well as individual and cultural differences in the perception of restorativeness and the restoration process.

Another important issue concerns the relation between biophilic design and psychological wellbeing, i.e., whether the presence of natural features (such as curvilinear forms, gradations of colors, blending of textures) and elements (water, plants) in buildings can have real benefits on human emotional wellbeing, stress reduction, cognitive efficiency, learning and healing processes.

Research on restorative environments has included both field and laboratory studies using primarily the transversal design, or to a lesser extent the pre-post design [113]. These studies miss a longer-term question. Successful coping strategies can mask the negative effects of a stressor. Studies have not determined whether long-term exposure to nature helps one adapt to or recover from stress/mental fatigue. To answer that question, we need longitudinal studies. 


I wish to express special thanks to Jack Nasar, Editor of this special issue, for his patience and invaluable assistance in the arrangement of this manuscript. I gratefully acknowledge the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.

References at the Behavioral Sciences site