The character of nature

This blog is part of a series and you can read the previous parts here and here.

 

Our culture has an enormous influence on what we deem to be beautiful; from providing the lens through which we interpret and even perceive things to influencing what we do and do not pay attention to. How our values, which are deeply shaped by our culture, shape our spaces and the objects we fill those spaces with, is an endless source of fascination for me and I intend to write more about this topic in a future post. But there is another influence, independent of our culture, that has a profound impact on what we do and do not perceive as beautiful, namely our evolutionary heritage.

When it comes to spaces and interiors, what we naturally deem to be beautiful is not arbitrary or a whim but is, in part, rooted in something primal within us. Many of our aesthetic preferences are tied into the very core of what it means to be human, shaped by the evolutionary influences on our heritage that have made us into who we are. As a result, elements of what we perceive to be beautiful are more universal than we think.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that our aesthetic preferences with regards to our surroundings stem from those elements within our environment that helped our ancestors to survive. For example, the reason proposed for the fact that so many of us find views of the water to be aesthetically pleasing is suggested to be linked to how reliant our species is on bodies of water for our survival and thriving.

The idea that natural environments and elements from nature have a positive impact on our wellbeing has gained growing support over the years. This innate love for nature and natural environments that most human beings experience is called biophilia.

The more familiar examples of how to harness our biophilic tendencies to create interiors we feel comfortable and content in are the use of natural materials (such as wood and stone) or the introduction of plants into our man-made environments. But the idea of positively influencing human wellbeing by taking inspiration from natural environments has far greater reach than just these two well-known examples. From lighting, temperature and airflow to the layout of our spaces and what decorative elements we incorporate, an understating of the environments we’ve evolved to thrive in can inform many of our design decisions.

Environmental psychology consultant and writer Lily Bernheimer and interior designer Ilse Crawford have pointed out that the sterility of modern lighting and temperature regulation systems like air-conditioning and central heating have a detrimental impact on our wellbeing. They suggest that the conditions we have evolved to thrive in were far less regulated than the conditions most modern buildings offer to us today.

Natural light from the sun and moon are in constant flux and both airflow and temperature change regularly when we are outdoors. Our bodies have evolved to detect these subtle changes and we, in turn, feel more comfortable, more alive and more content in environments that mimic these natural changes more readily. Almost everyone prefers to sit and work next to a window with natural light as opposed to sitting under the constant gleam of fluorescent overhead lighting. Most of us prefer to be in the fresh air and feel a gentle breeze on our skin than experience the blast of air-conditioning or breath in the stale, dry air from central heating.

The central idea is that many modern environments have become too sterile and that our bodies (and therefore our minds) feel far more content under subtly shifting and changing conditions closer to the environment we’ve evolved in.

Considering the example above gives some indication why so many of us feel more contented in a place where we can feel the gentle summer’s breeze on our skin while watching the flickering shadows from leaves dance and change under warm sunlight than we do under bright neon lights in windowless, climate-controlled office blocks. Maximising the use of natural light, opening windows in our home to let the fresh breeze in and using natural airflow to cool our home are therefore not just whimsical ideas about what we should favour in our home environments but instead natural preferences rooted in our evolutionary heritage.

What is being suggested is not that natural is necessarily better than man-made but that when things are too far removed from the conditions we have evolved to thrive in, we tend to feel less contented and more strained than in those environments that more closely resemble the habitats we’ve evolved to survive in. Lily Bernheimer writes “biophilia translates to ‘love of life’: human attraction to nature, our love of the living world…[Edward O.] Wilson [a biologist who popularized the term ‘biophilia’ in his 1984 book] suggested that biologically, we are still programmed to prefer the settings that would have supported our survival long ago.” Environments that are too far removed from this more natural state tend to place more strain on our bodies, sensory and perceptual system and therefore also minds, contributing to a reduced sense of wellbeing. And the opposite is also true: environments that are more similar to the conditions we’ve evolved to thrive in help us to come alive, increasing our wellbeing rather than diminishing it.  

Christopher Alexander reminds us that “the character of nature is no mere poetic metaphor.” By becoming more aware of those aspects of the natural environment that helped our ancestors to thrive we can begin to learn how to create spaces we not only find naturally more beautiful but also feel more comfortable and content in.

In ‘The Shaping of Us’ Lily Bernheimer points out that our preferences for certain environments go beyond just aesthetics, profoundly impacting how we feel. “We are especially drawn to elements that signalled sources of nourishment or shelter to our predecessors. But it’s not just that we like these natural forms of settings. They intimately impact our ability to think, heal, and create…The form of older structures and settlements was often more innately biophilic. Buildings used natural materials such as wood and stone. Roads followed the contour of the land. Places grew slowly. There was more mystery, variety, and malleability. And much of this was lost in the fast pace of the twentieth-century life…[Today], the environments we inhabit have become further and further removed from the scale and tone of the world we were built for. They have become less biophilic.

Christopher Alexander writes that “one of the most pervasive features of [buildings being built today] is the fact that they are “modular”. They are full of identical concrete blocks, identical rooms, identical houses, identical apartments in identical apartment buildings.” The more identical we make the world around us the more the resemblance to the rich, complex environments we’ve evolved to thrive in, is lost. Naturally, this impacts how we live and how we feel, placing strain on our bodies and perceptual systems and reducing our ability to cope with the increasing stresses and strains of the modern world.

We are increasingly aware of the fact that our biophilic-bias may hold the key to many of our aesthetic preferences. The evidence for how restorative the natural world is for our health and wellbeing is mounting and with it our understanding of why we find certain scenes, spaces and places more naturally beautiful than others. But what exactly are the main insights we can gain from a deeper understanding of how our aesthetic preference are rooted in our evolutionary heritage? What are some of the defining ideas we can use as a guide for our decision-making when it comes to our built environments, especially our homes? These are some of the questions and ideas I will consider in our next blog post.

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