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Science. Communication. Community.

Biophilia or Bust

Biophilia is the notion that human beings seek a connection with nature and that this connection impacts our health and well-being. Science doesn’t really know, but are our experiences enough?

by Kelly Tyrrell

Photo by J. Tyrrell

Photo by J. Tyrrell

A week ago, I was standing at the edge of the summit of a mountain.

I felt so small. But I also felt so big.

Shakily braced at the edge of the rocky precipice, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of what lay below me. Above me. Around me. But immersed in this vastness, an understanding swept over me that I was also part of it.

Two days later, in a quiet valley 100 miles away, I greedily soaked in my first glimpse of the aurora borealis. The spectral phenomenon also known as the Northern Lights is the result of charged particles from the sun, pulled toward Earth’s magnetic field, colliding with our atmosphere.

While the physics light show danced, the Milky Way splashed across the midnight sky. Shooting stars and satellites tracked across invisible cosmic highways.

These experiences filled me with calm. And for many, a trip to the mountains, a bird-watching hike, a day spent on a wild beach, a long run through a forest, all have similar effects. Some believe these experiences and the effects they have on us come from an inherent tendency to connect with nature and the living world, a hypothesis dubbed biophilia and popularized by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, E.O. Wilson.

Wilson published a book in 1984 in which he used his own experiences in nature to develop this notion. Since that time, others have sought to understand the foundation for what so many of us perceive to be true, but for which few robust scientific studies exist.

Instead, we have the fields of ecology and conservation to understand and protect the natural world. We have studies on the impact of plants and healing gardens on psychological well-being. We have therapy animals. We have the controversial fields of sociobiology, linking social behavior with genetic evolution, and dual inheritance theory, which says human behavior arises from a mix between cultural and genetic evolution. Philosophers, physicians, psychologists and more study subjects with biophilia at their core, whether or not such a construct actually exists.

As a species, we have sought to understand WHY we feel better when we spend time outdoors, why we decorate our homes and offices with tiny succulents in pots and flowering lilies, how our dog always has a way of making us feel better after a hard day. A 2009 review looked at some of the research linking health and the natural world.

There has also been put forth the notion of nature deficit disorder, which technically can be viewed as the consequence of not satisfying our own biophilia. It says the inclination of many to stay comfortable indoors, fingers locked to keyboards and eyes to screens, has been a detriment to our own psychological and physical well-being. But this unproven idea also assumes we need a connection with the non-human living world.

To tie everything together, to develop a solid theory of biophilia, requires much more scientific attention. One large question is to what can we ascribe many of the tranquility-inducing effects of our transactions with nature? Was my calm bliss the result of the endocannabinoids acting on my brain (marijuana-like chemicals produced by the human body, especially during exercise) as I hiked up and down several thousand feet of rugged terrain for days, carrying everything I needed to survive on my back? Was it the result of other fitness and health effects from such physical endeavors?

Wild blueberries

Wild blueberries

Or was it a neurochemical high brought on directly by my bird calls that went answered, by my tastebuds tingling with the sweet-tart juice of wild alpine blueberries or by the feeling of warm sunshine balanced by cooling wind on my skin. Does it matter whether the physiological effects of our experiences in nature are a direct result of nature itself or simply a consequence of what is possible in nature?

I could repeatedly climb the steps of an 11-story, windowless building to find out, but I doubt the effects would be the same. In fact, that might just make me grouchy.

Science may not have an answer about biophilia for a long time. But in this case, anecdotal evidence is enough for me. I might need to increase my sample size.

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About kelly tyrrell

runner. science writer. prairie lover. mountain dreamer.

3 comments on “Biophilia or Bust

  1. This piece makes me smile, being an avid nature lover myself.

    On the other had, the word biophilia, which I hadn’t known a few minutes ago, resonates with me in a different way. It recalls the word chemophobia, and how I often roll my eyes when products are lauded as being “natural” or “chemical free.”

    It makes me wonder: with the physiological effects of nature, where does the science stop and the “woo woo” begin?

  2. kelly tyrrell
    August 1, 2013

    It’s funny, Kerstin. I love science. I love nature (though I am not currently hugging a tree). But do I want science trying to explain why I love nature? I think probably not. At least, I don’t need it to. It’s good enough for me to know that I love it, plain and simple, and I will take every opportunity to be in it as much as I can.
    I can totally see how you made that connection, too …

  3. Pingback: Biophilia | The Balsamean

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This entry was posted on August 1, 2013 by in Health, Physics and tagged , , , .
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