The Biophilia Effect
“The person who fully loves life is attracted by the process of life and growth in all spheres.” — Eric Fromm
I spend a lot of time in nature. Never as much as I’d like, but enough to keep me grounded through the turbulence of everyday life. In doing so, I’ve noticed a few things.
Primarily, there’s an urge inside of me that slowly builds up, louder and stronger with each passing day or week, calling me to go and get lost on the trails of a nearby national park. It’s a pressure valve, because once I do, my mind is once again calm, refueled and calibrated.
After an intense hike or mountain bike, swim or snowshoe, I find myself relaxed, rejuvenated, at the tantalizing pinnacles of euphoria. I used to think that this was due to my physical exertion and the cascading rush of endorphins that follow suit but, after suffering a broken collarbone and being reduced to leisurely runs through the woods for a summer, I began to realize that there was something more at play.
Then I had stumbled upon the concept of Shinrin Yoku — the Japanese practice of Forest Bathing — a trend that developed in the late 80’s whereby people would stroll through the woods to experience somewhat of a forest therapy by opening their senses to the natural sentience of nature. I figured it to be nothing substantially more than a good way of living, of a healthy activity that helps clear the mind, get the blood moving and maybe infuse some needed fresh air into the lungs. But there seems to be more to it.
From there, it wasn’t long until I turned a corner and was met with the philosophy of Biophilia, a hypothesis credited to Eric Fromm, proposing that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and are drawn towards all that is alive and vital. This is where things began to get interesting.
“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”— Frank Lloyd Wright
From a psychological perspective, the theory began to materialize a little bit more. As we in the West tend to need our materially-conclusive factum, the propositions extended by the concept of Biophilia became more concrete. Eric Fromm approached the matter from a Freudian perspective, finding that contact with nature is essential and crucial for the human psyche. He described a psychological orientation of being attracted to livelihood, that life seeks to be around other life and that these deep affiliations between life forms for one another are innately rooted in their biology.
This concept isn’t necessarily new, as it’s origins can be traced as far back as Aristotle and beyond, sometimes contextualized differently as something along the lines of symbiosis, synergy, naturalism, and the like.
Fromm’s approach, however, weaves in the biological impulse we seem to hold for preferring the natural over the unnatural, an affinity for anything with a pulse in a world that has becoming largely inanimate.
Collectively, we’re beginning to realize this. Biophilic-based design has been adopted into the trends of architecture and interior design — more and more designs incorporate plant life and greenery, a natural essence to an artificial presence. We can see the same thing taking shape with artificial intelligence, endeavors into renewable energy sources, and dietary or recreational lifestyles; we’re increasingly revering life in any form. Ultimately, we seem to have strayed too far from our natural origins and are now trying to reconcile with them — all this for good reason.
“The biophilous person prefers to construct rather than to retain. He wants to be more rather than to have more. He is capable of wondering, and he prefers to see something new rather than to find confirmation of the old. He loves the adventure of living more than he does certainty. He sees the whole rather than only the parts, structures rather than summations. He wants to mold and to influence by love, reason, and example.” — Eric Fromm
We’re coming to find that the absence of bioactive substances throughout life, whether at home or in the office, is aesthetically unpleasant and, as has been recently studied in more vigor, has undeniable effects on our mood. But what may be of more bewilderment is the actual scope in its physiological effect. Newest findings have shown that our physical health depends on influences of nature.
One such study conducted by a team of scientists, led by Marc Berman, assessed neighborhood greenspace as a health factor in a large urban center — Toronto. Drawing on comprehensive greenspace metrics and health records, overall findings indicated that residents who live among a higher density of trees reported ‘significantly higher health perception’ and ‘significantly less cardio-metabolic conditions’.
“We find that having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger.” - M. Berman et. al.
Several studies, beyond this one alone, have shown that exposure to greenspaces can be physiologically and psychologically beneficial through a number of means, including of course, self-perception. There are, of course, the obvious points — greener suburbs typically have greener residents in terms of lifestyle — despite this, physiological evidence has become apparent.
Is it so hard to accept that nature helps us maintain a healthy equilibrium beyond just the generally-accepted psychological benefits?
Human beings evolved in and with nature through hundreds of thousands of years. Moving into sealed, airtight conditions — can we be so sure that our biology has caught up to adapting to the fluorescent hums of offices or the closed artificial environments that we increasingly find ourselves in?
Beyond getting away from paint or exhaust fumes, we can look at the physical emissions of trees. Pines or coniferous trees, for instance, emit a class of chemical called terpenes, compounds that are increasingly being said to promote emotional and physical health. Terpenes have recently become all the rage with cannabinoids (THC and CBD oils) but are found in every corner of nature — shurbs and trees and plants all emitting this compound.
“Recently it’s been identified that the terpenes also act directly on brain cells to modulate their activity.” — Dr. Josh Kaplan, neuroscientist at The University of Washington
For myself, I don’t have to be convinced — I believe whole-heartedly that nature benefits more than just the mind. I feel that we have a hard time placing much emphasis on things we can’t see; water, for instance, is a staple to good health that we’ve accepted, but what of the countless microbial compounds that flow about in the air that we inhale or coat our skin so as to allow for epidermal absorption. We slap chemicals on our face or in our hair regularly, inhale artificial fragrances everywhere we go, and coat our skin with synthetics. But when it comes to simply being out in nature, we don’t tout the true benefits of what we’re really exposed to.
Personally, I stand firm in my belief that there’s more than just fresh air out there.
“I believe that man is the product of natural evolution that is born from the conflict of being a prisoner and separated from nature, and from the need to find unity and harmony with it.” — Eric Fromm