Australian landscape architect Wil Whitfeld upgraded his design expertise by getting a Master’s Degree in environmental psychology at University of Surrey last year. Back in Sydney, where he recently started working at Oculus design studio, Wil eagerly accepted my proposition to do an interview about his study experience and the new insights it gave him. He also discusses his poetically titled dissertation research “Walking with your head in the clouds: The influence of pathway design on mindfulness, recall and affective state”, which he is presenting at this year’s EDRA conference in Los Angeles in less than a month.
“We could not understand the environment unless we entered the world already understanding these relationships.” – Immanuel Kant’s conclusion from his Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals is used by Gordon H. Orians to illustrate his own understanding of how our mind responds to the environment. Observing our fascination with natural landscapes, our interest for animals, trees, flowers, sunrises and sunsets, through an evolutionary lens, Prof. Orians argues that the life of our ancestors shaped what we love and what we fear.
Having realised that our interests in human responses to the environment greatly overlap, prof. Orians and I started a discussion via e-mail. Here are some of his reflexions on the topic, which is explained in detail in his book Snakes, Sunrises and Shakespeare – How Evolution Shapes our Loves and Fears.
Many people seek to understand the human connection to nature, wondering about our place in the world, and intuitively sense that it cannot be fully explained within the limited frame of individual experience. They often look for insight by trying to understand the life our distant ancestors experienced, prior to civilization. I’ve noticed that the “savanna hypothesis” is one of the most common search terms that brings readers to my blog.
An evolutionary perspective on our relations with the environment might be the most profound, and perhaps the most useful when it comes to analyzing our emotional reactions to it. It goes beyond our immediate response to our surroundings, and focuses on how one particular type of environment in East Africa shaped many of our psychological processes. It addresses mechanisms that we’re not consciously aware of, though we experience their end results. We sometimes take these for granted — thinking, for example, that it is accepted knowledge that snakes are scary, and that’s just the way it is — while at other times the power of those evolutionary influences amazes us — how can sunsets be so compelling, though they are a common phenomenon in our lives?
A growing body of research in the field of evolutionary psychology has enabled scientists to offer many fascinating hypotheses regarding the relationship of evolution, environment and our behaviour. Gordon H. Orians, a biologist and the author of the savanna hypothesis, brings together theory and research in his new book Snakes, Sunrises and Shakespeare. He discusses how evolution shaped what we like and what we fear in the world around us.
When it comes to aesthetic preferences, I like to remember an older colleague’s explanation of why his wife’s eyes are beautiful – not because they fit some common criteria of what is considered a beautiful shape, size, or color, but simply because they’re hers. He loves her, he loves her eyes. Many memories are kept in those eyes. He watches them smile, cry, get angry, getting old, and sees the value and beauty in them.
Is this a beauty pageant?; Lime Tree Avenue, Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire; photo by Lincolnian (Brian)
There are some things we consider beautiful (or at least want to) per se, just because. All the things and people we love could be included here, and everything we think of as valuable. Just writing about how some trees are prefered over others because of their appearance seems somewhat unfair.
Interesting fact No.1: Genome-wise, modern humans are very closely related. Any two modern humans, from anywhere on the globe, possess greater genetic similarity than do any two chimpanzees; even those selected from neighbouring groups in Africa (Davies, 2001; Ridley, 2000; Wells, 2002; according to Falk and Balling 2010).
African savanna during an unusually wet period; photo by Martin_Heigan
Interesting fact No.2: A broad survey of art preferences (Wypijewski 1997, according to Dutton, 2003) of people living in ten countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas found “an odd cross-cultural uniformity” – respondents in all countries expressed a liking for realistic representative paintings including water, trees and other plants, human beings, and animals, especially large mammals. Two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who hired professionals to conduct this survey in the first place, produced a favourite painting for each country using the statistical preferences as a guide. The paintings turned out to be very similar — they all looked like ordinary European landscape calendar art. An influential art critic Arthur Danto claimed that this findings demonstrate the power of the international calendar industry to influence taste away from indigenous values and towards European conventions. Was Danto right?
Of all the things that can be bought and sold, is there anything that’s more important for building your life around it, than a home? There’s nothing I can think of right now, and that’s probably why selling it is so stressful. It’s hard to see your home as an empty shell, stripped of all your stuff and even harder to have its value pinned down to money. When we have to put a price tag on anything that’s dear to us, it just feels like a misfit translation of values. Market value of your home cannot reflect all the special moments shared in it, a part of your life “left” in it, that special value that makes is a home for you.
A home by K_M Architektur at Lake Walensee, Switzerland;
photo by JoeInSouthernCA
Those values can be completely unrelated, too. You can spend a very happy period of your life in a home with a lower market value, and live very poorly in an expensive home. It seems that when we’re selling a home, we’re very aware the fact that we’re selling bare walls and not our experience of a home, but when we’re buying a new one, we are trying to capture those feelings of a special place and homey feeling nonetheless (and real estate agents know it!). We look out for cues that reveal a potential for happiness, and, like with all purchases, we’re willing to let go of completely objective, logical reasoning and also act emotionally, impulsively, “fall in love” with some features. While quantitative variables like square footage and number of bedrooms might be the most important for making a reasonable decision about home buying, the most intriguing material for falling in love is the view.
When it comes to landscaping preferences, we seem to have a thing for the exotic – trying to grow a Mediterranean garden in a wet oceanic climate, a big green lawn in a desert climate and tropical plants in a continental climate. While I don’ think there’s anything wrong with being inspired by things that come from afar, there’s no reason to belive that they fit our surroundings better that anything native. And while globalisation has come so far that there’s no special maintainance issue whether you choose either American, European or Japanese car, maintaining non-native landscapes can cause further problems.
Red Box; photo by Jeremy Levine Design
One of the most important aspects of environmental psychology is investigating and promoting environmentally friendly attitudes and behaviour, so the following research deals with that issue. Aiming to identify ways to reduce outdoor residential water use in the desert area of the southwestern United States, Yabiku and colleagues (2008) examined landscape preferences and some factors associated with them.