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Mindful : August 2015
Too little green in your life? You’re not alone. But can science prove that you’re hardwired to crave nature? Stephen Kellert, a professor at Yale University’s School of Environmental Studies, had been asked by a retire- ment community to study whether the ponds, waterfalls, trees, gardens, and other elements of “biophilic” design throughout the 52-acre facility were beneficial to the elderly resi- dents, perhaps improving their cog- nitive function, stress levels, or other physiological measures, and whether additional biophilic elements should be introduced. You would think conducting a study like this would be fairly unre- markable, except for one thing. More than 30 years after Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson popularized the term biophilia in a 1984 book, it remains ill-defined, controversial, and short of rigorous empirical support—yet prac- tical applications of it have spread like kudzu. Researchers such as Kellert, a leading exponent of biophilia, are left to run after the schools, corporate headquarters, health-care facilities, architects, and designers who claim Do We Really Need Nature? biophilia as an established fact, call- ing, wait, wait for research to catch up with what you’re doing! Wilson defined biophilia as an innate, genetically based affinity for the living world, manifested in an “urge to affiliate with other forms of life” such as grasslands, trees, and animals (not explicitly other humans). “Humans have a deep and enduring urge to connect with living diver- sity,” argues Kellert. Doing so brings numerous psychological and phys- iological benefits, allowing us to, in Kellert’s words, “prosper physically, emotionally, and intellectually.” Wil- son claimed that this affinity for the living world is “quite likely resident in the genes themselves,” driving us to embrace the living world, particularly savannahs like those in which our ancestors evolved in Africa, because said genes provided a survival advan- tage to our ancestors. The genetic claim, in particular, has been contro- versial from the start, and evidence for it is still meager to nonexistent. Why, many have asked, if humans innately love nature so much, have we driven countless species into extinc- tion, ravaged landscapes for short- term gain, and (voting with our feet) chosen cities over countryside? Biophilia’s claim that “affiliating ” with living (not rocks or water) nature is good for us launched scores of stud- ies. Researchers reported stress reduc- tion, improved attention, “mental restoration,” better health, increased longevity. In a frequently cited 1984 study, patients recovering from gallbladder surgery were randomly assigned to a room with a view of either a brick wall or a savannah-like environment dotted with trees. → 18 mindful August 2015 brain science Illustration by Sébastien Thibault Sharon Begley is the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.