A connection with nature is comprised of an affective and experiential sense of belonging to the natural world and includes the extent to which nature is included within an individual’s view of self. This blog considers recent research in Current Biology on the impact of LSD on the brain, our sense of self and how our brains make meaning.
I’m excited about this research as nature connection is considered as a subjective construct measured with questionnaires and this research suggests a potential neurobiology of nature connection – making it more objective. So, firstly, back to nature and our self. One of the nature connection measures, the Inclusion of Nature in Self scale demonstrates the concept well, with overlapping circles for person and nature (see below). The greater the overlap, the greater the connection with nature.
Along similar lines, people taking LSD report that the boundary that separates them from the environment dissolves. The term for this being ‘ego dissolution’. I’ve written before that our senses and brain creates an inside that says the natural world exists; but our ego creates a self that says nature is an other. Through re-engaging with the natural world, noticing it’s beauty, finding meaning and an emotional bond we can see beyond these imagined boundaries. Indeed, my account of reconnecting with nature during 250 nature walks in 2011 included this passage:
“Where the river was audibly unstill I looked out over the flat lands, from foreground to far, and felt that the landscape and my mind merged, my sense of self dissolved.”
Needwood: A search for deep nature
My regular trips into nature changed my understanding of my self and its shared place within the natural world. I started to realise that nature is not an external other, something we encounter – it is part of our being.
Back to the research. Tagliazucchi and colleagues fMRI scanned people on LSD and found that ego dissolution occurs as the brain regions involved in higher cognition become over-connected. This expanded global brain connectivity of the fronto-parietal cortex associated with self-consciousness increases communication between normally distinct areas of the brain. The connection between this region and sensory areas overcoming perceptual boundaries between the self and the environment. Thereby forming a stronger link between the sensed environment and sense of self. Interestingly, the mid-twentieth century philosophy of Merleau-Ponty highlighted such illusionary boundaries and the interconnection between the perceived and perceiver – how we are embedded in the environment. Similarly, in The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd joins the realities of self and nature and joys in the perception of the world. Such a philosophical stance differs with the dominant Cartesian tradition of modernity, where the subject is seen as separate from object
A second LSD fMRI paper by Preller and colleagues, published last week, considers how our brains make meaning, as experiencing a meaningful environment is a core aspect of the human self. Our research has found that finding meaning in nature, and the symbolism of nature, is a key aspect of nature connection. Through manipulating meaning with LSD, the study identified the receptors in the brain related to meaning, and these seemed to be linked to the brain areas related to the self and ego dissolution.
It would seem there could be parallels between this research and nature connection work. Pointing us towards how finding meaning in nature, and becoming more connected with nature is reflected in our neurobiology. Could nature connection be observed in the brain? There are opportunities for fMRI research here, and more focused questions such as the relationship between perceptual fluency of nature and nature connection; does tuning into nature overcome perceptual barriers between self and nature? Yet, outside the laboratory, we can all study the brain and understand our self by noticing nature’s beauty, finding meaning and developing an emotional bond – as knowing our place within nature, is knowing our self.
Tagliazucchi and Roseman et al. Increased Global Functional Connectivity Correlates with LSD-Induced Ego Dissolution. Current Biology, 2016
Katrin H. Preller, Marcus Herdener, Thomas Pokorny, Amanda Planzer, Rainer Kraehenmann, Philipp Stämpfli, Matthias E. Liechti, Erich Seifritz, Franz X. Vollenweider. The Fabric of Meaning and Subjective Effects in LSD-Induced States Depend on Serotonin 2A Receptor Activation. Current Biology, 2017