This post is based on a seed of an idea I’d like to develop more fully, but busy doing other things, including a recent conversation about the phrase connection to nature. It is becoming more widely used, which is great, but what does it mean?
Firstly, I’m happy with the term ‘connection to nature’, some suggest ‘connection to’ infers nature and humans are separate, technically they maybe correct, but it is a straightforward and understandable term being used more and more by conservation organisations, politicians, wildlife tv presenters and researchers.
So, what is a connection to, or with, nature? The academic research into human-nature relationships offers a few perspectives. It could be an extended sense of self, an identity that includes nature – a cognitive belief about our place in the natural world. Or a relationship commitment, a belonging to a wider community. Or it’s about emotional affinity, seeing nature as a source of awe and beauty, rather than an object of observation.
An established theory of relevance is Wilson’s biophilia, “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”. This suggests we have an innate need to affiliate with nature. It is suggested that this need for nature has a genetic and biological origin, based on our evolution in the natural world. Artificial urban environments are new to us and we have an unconscious need for more natural environments. Similarly, Ulrich’s psycho-evolutionary model suggests an innate affiliation with nature that leads to positive emotions and restoration.
However, theories like biophilia can emphasise our evolutionary past, rather than our present place, and how we experience the world here and now; our being. Rather than a theory of previous existence and needs, there is evidence of our physical and psychological place within a shared natural world. To me, this is more compelling – we shouldn’t affiliate with the natural world because of our past, we are all affiliated with nature here and now. But that connection can be lost owing to the dominant Cartesian tradition of modernity – our boxes for ‘human’ and ‘nature’, the independent self, individuals separate from nature and dominant over it.
An alternative philosophy is the phenomenological perspective of Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty wrote of “the Flesh” as a collective term for the flesh of the human body and the flesh of the world and highlighted the interconnection between the perceived and perceiver – we are embedded in the landscape. Our body, as described by Merleau-Ponty, is “the vehicle of being in the world”.
The argument that we inhabit a shared place in the natural world is a perspective often observed by anthropologists in native peoples. More recently, ideas of embodied cognition and extended mind have emerged (e.g. Clark, 1997; Gallagher, 2005; Lakoff and Johnson, 1999), where mind and environment operate as a coupled system. Such philosophical and psychological arguments firmly embed us in the environment (e.g. Borghi and Cimatti, 2010; Jacob, 2012). And others are highlighting the integration between biology, phenomenology and the sciences of mind, (Thompson, 2010). We are biological beings evolved to make sense of our natural environment.
It is not surprising that when we analysed people’s notes of 1000 ‘good things in nature’ (Richardson, 2014), the most frequent theme was sensations of nature. These sensations through our perceptual system give us access to the world. It has also been suggested that the fluency of such perception, the ease of which we view nature, underpins its restorative effects (e.g. Attention Restoration Theory) and the aesthetics of nature’s beauty (Reber et al, 2004). These sensations are the moments of human-nature interaction; moments of interconnectedness arising from how we, as biological beings, make sense of the world – the moment where human and nature is experienced as one. In my creative writing I’ve termed such unity of life, mind and nature as ‘biopsychophysis’.
So what is a connection to nature?
Personally, I see it as a realisation of our shared place in nature, which affects our being – how we experience the world here and now; our emotional response, beliefs and attitudes towards nature. We have always been, but more importantly, are still biological beings embedded in the natural world, but often overlook this as our technology defines us more and more within a dominant discourse and thinking about ‘human’ and ‘nature’.
I see this current shared place as a more compelling story to engage people, than stories based on the evolution of long lost ancestors. Prompting people to consider this shared perspective and our place in nature (self-knowledge) encourages people to reflect, and such reflection leads to greater connection to nature (that’s recent research in the pipeline).
Implications for well-being
Stevens (2010) noted wider benefits from this shared perspective of embedment in the environment, the relationship between people and place offers a new paradigm for well-being. Our established and dominant health models view people as separable from their environment, with health being a function of the individual. Similarly a ‘biomedical’ model of medicine is based on a deviation from ‘normal’ within the individual. The ‘biopsychosocial’ model reflects a ‘mind-body connection’ where biological, psychological and social factors play a significant role in health. Perhaps it is time for a model based on ‘biopsychophysis’, reflecting a ‘mind-body-nature connection’ where health depends on biological, psychological and natural environment factors. After all, recent research has confirmed that a connection to nature is as important for wellbeing as established factors, such as income and education. A connection to nature is good for nature and good for you!
Borghi, A. M., and F. Cimatti (2010). Embodied cognition and beyond: Acting and sensing the body. Neuropsychologia 48: 763-773.
Clark, A. (1997). Being there. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.
Gallagher, S. (2005). How the body shapes the mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Jacob, P. (2012). Embodying the mind by extending it. Review of Philosophy and Psychology 3: 33-51.
Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic Books.
Reber, R., Schwarz, N., & Winkielman, P. (2004). Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: is beauty in the perceiver’s processing experience?. Personality and social psychology review, 8(4), 364-382.
Richardson, M., Hallam, J. & Lumber, R. (2014) One thousand good things in nature: The aspects of nature that lead to increased nature connectedness. Environmental Values.
Stevens, P. (2010). Embedment in the environment: A new paradigm for well-being? Perspectives in public health, 130(6), 265-269.
Thompson, E. (2010). Mind in life: Biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.