Excerpt from ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age: How to feel better without logging off’, 2017, Sue Thomas.
NB: This excerpt references my earlier book ‘Technobiophilia: Nature and cyberspace’, 2013, Bloomsbury.
In 2004 I had a question – why do we use nature metaphors to describe cyberspace? After all, it’s not even real, let alone physical. Yet look at all those terms – fields, webs, clouds, streams, rivers, trails, paths, torrents and islands; flora such as apples, blackberries, trees, roots and branches, and fauna including spiders, viruses, worms, pythons, lynxes, gophers, not to mention the ubiquitous bug and mouse. As Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly once said, ‘the web smells like life’.
I interviewed engineers, authors and academics. I read up on the history of the net; surfed the web, scoured scholarly papers, and poked about inside programming languages, but nowhere could I find anything to explain why we visualise this most abstract of places in such a physical way. My training as an English and History specialist with a smattering of computing meant that I tended to approach research from the humanities side of things, but gradually I found myself sliding towards the unknown territories of scientific enquiry.
Then one day I was reading a paper about the psychology of nature when I came across a word which was new to me – biophilia. Curious, I followed the footnotes and found myself at a book of the same name. It was written by a biologist I had never heard of at the time but who, I later discovered, is one of the most visionary scientists of our age – Edward O. Wilson.
And then it all fell into place.
One day in 1974, E.O. Wilson was working in a shady glade in the heart of a tropical forest in Surinam, where he was researching the behaviours of ants. Suddenly, he was overcome by a feeling of intense revelation as he became aware, as never before, that he was an outsider in that place.
Years later he wrote, ‘the uncounted products of evolution were gathered there for purposes having nothing to do with with me’.i At that moment he understood that there in the forest, surrounded by numerous species with their hugely varied and ancient genetic histories, his presence was completely inconsequential. And far from being frightened by this realisation, he felt strangely calmed by it.
It would be ten years before Wilson finally distilled his impressions into the concept of biophilia, which he defined as ‘an innate attraction to life and lifelike processes’.
Biophilia is now widely understood as the impulse that attracts us to the outdoors, to plant and animal life, to the green of the forests and to the blue of skies, lakes, rivers and oceans. It’s the driving force behind our hunger for nature and probably holds the secret of its therapeutic qualities.
‘What is it exactly that binds us so closely to living things’? wrote Wilson. In his book ‘Biophilia’, he explains his theory that, as humans evolved, we survived by attuning to our surroundings and ‘reading’ the behaviours of creatures and landscapes around us. In those very early times, these skills were crucial to our survival. We needed to to be able to interpret sounds and smells, know what to do when the weather changed, and find food and shelter at desperate moments. Failure to do so could mean the difference between life and death.
Even in today’s modern world we still retain that sensitivity. No matter how urban our lifestyle, how domesticated our day-to-day, an encounter with nature can momentarily stop us in our tracks. This is because, says Wilson, biophilia was genetically encoded inside the earliest humans as we struggled to survive in the wild. Today, our everyday lives are somewhat less dependent upon our physical environs, at least in the short term, but biophilia remains coded into human memory.
Moreover, Wilson thinks it might even lie dormant for long periods until something triggers it back into the forefront of our unconscious minds. An encounter with an animal, a visit to the countryside, even just the scent of a flower, can plunge us back into that ancient biophilic sensorium. In that moment, we sense a glimmer of the wild as we once knew it and suddenly we’re reconnected with our ancient self. The effect might be fleetingly brief, or it can lead to a profound and life-changing moment.
George Monbiot echoes the concept of biophilia in his belief that we possess a ‘ghost psyche’, ‘a set of capacities that helped secure our survival in more dangerous times’ which today, he thinks, has become vestigial. He pictures it as ‘a seam of intense emotion, buried so deeply in our minds that we can seldom find it’.ii
Biophilia may be invisible and hard to quantify but it’s extremely powerful. You might sniff a strawberry and activate an ancient yet thrilling buzz of foraging for your daily meal. Watch a spider run across the floor and feel a surge of biophobia in your brain which heralds, not the love of nature, but a fear of it which was deeply encoded in your subconscious at an evolutionary moment when sleeping on the ground was the only option.
It’s likely, but not yet proven, that humans probably have a partly genetic predisposition to biophobia. We may respond fearfully to certain living things (most notably spiders, snakes and bugs) and also to some natural situations which might contain hidden dangers and be difficult to escape from. Just as we’re attracted to some kinds of animals and drawn to particular places, we can equally be repelled by others, often for sound survival reasons.
Think of biophilia as a hidden programme constantly running in the background of your consciousness. Hear a blackbird sing? See that blue sky? Feel the tide running between your toes? Biophilia.
My discovery of biophilia led me to environmental psychology, an area entirely new to me. In the subject journals I discovered many research projects which have measured, assessed and evaluated the effects of human exposure to the natural world.
For example, in 1986, healthcare design researcher Roger Ulrich showed photographic slides to test subjects and concluded that slides of ‘unspectacular’ scenes of nature elicited an increase in positive mood, while slides of urban areas produced a decline in mood. He reported that scenes of nature, particularly those depicting water, had a beneficial influence on participants.iii In 1989, psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan found that mental fatigue could be alleviated, and levels of concentration improved, by spending more time in nature or even just from viewing nature.iv And Japanese researchers have found measurable benefits in patients who have spent time ‘forest bathing’. This involves spending periods of time in a forest under certain kinds of conditions, and has led to improvements of blood glucose levels, mood, stress, and even (reportedly) cancer.v
But as I read more about environmental psychology research, I noticed something which was evident but seldom mentioned – much of it took place, not outdoors amongst in real nature, but indoors by way of pictures, photographs and videos, as in two of the three projects described above. This approach allowed researchers to test under controlled conditions, of course, but it meant that some of the most frequently cited experiments proving the beneficial effects of nature are actually proving the benefits, not of being outside on grass or amongst trees and flowers, but of viewing images of them through a window, in a picture, or even on a screen.
A screen? Could this also apply to computers? I began to search for similar research conducted with nature viewed on computer screens but drew a blank. In fact, most of the projects which underpin this area of study were conducted in the nineteen eighties and nineties, when computers were not yet ubiquitous.
I think there was a cultural barrier in play too. It’s a gross assumption, I know, but I’m guessing that the kinds of people working on nature and the outdoors in those years probably had very different priorities from those of the geeks who were busy, at the same time, inventing cyberculture in rarefied research institutions and teenage bedrooms. For example, in 1984, the year Wilson published ‘Biophilia’, cyberpunks and hackers were queuing up to read William Gibson’s relentlessly urban science fiction novel ‘Neuromancer’, especially noteworthy because it coined a new word – ‘cyberspace’. It was a case of two worlds which were definitely not colliding.
Furthermore, I could find no research into the psychological impact of looking at nature images on computers or phones of any kind. There’s plenty of psychological research into computer use, but virtually none into the connections between environmental psychology and screen-based nature imagery. (For one example, see Deltcho Valtchanov later in this book). I realised that this was an entirely new field, and I seemed to be about the only person in it.
I began to understand how, for example, a screensaver of a beautiful waterfall cascading across an office worker’s computer screen can provide an important moment of time out during the business day. And I saw how, as we explored the new landscapes of cyberspace, we used terms drawn from the language of our earliest beginnings to name it and describe the experiences we were having there. Suddenly it all made sense, and biophilia was the key.
If such powerful results could be obtained by comparatively traditional methods, would they not also apply to other kinds of screens? And did it make a difference, I wondered, whether the screen was a video, commonly used in many of the tests I had read about, or a computer screen-saver, or a photo shared on Facebook, or an event live-streamed online? I didn’t see how it could possibly matter. The media are visually the same. The only difference lies in the platforms upon which they are delivered.
This was quite a surprise, and one with far-reaching consequences. I drew the conclusion that, in the light of that evidence I had seen, it makes sense that a trip to the mountains in Grand Theft Auto, or the sight of beautiful beach on your screen wallpaper, or the process of ‘liking’ a photo of a sunset shared on Twitter, could have the same kinds of beneficial effects as if they were actual physical encounters with nature.
I’ve called this phenomenon ‘technobiophilia’. The term builds upon E.O Wilson’s original definition by adding on just five more words. Whilst he described biophilia as ‘the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes’, I defined technobiophilia as ‘the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes as they appear in technology’.
Technobiophilic practices, objects and devices have one or more of the following features:
Technobiophilia has revolutionised the way I think about my digital life. It has helped me to understand that all those sunsets we share on Facebook, the hours we spend roaming forests and deserts in video games, the heart-stopping adventures we enjoy in virtual reality, even the animated jellyfish floating hypnotically across our screensavers, are not random. We’ve chosen them, subconsciously or not, to help us relax, to make us feel good, and to soothe our connected minds.
Indeed, they are the reason we feel better without logging off.
i Wilson, E.O. ‘Biophilia’, 1984.
ii Monbiot, George. ‘The primal thrill of sharks: the emotional case for rewilding the sea’. 4.2.17 The Guardian
iii Ulrich, R.S. ‘Human responses to vegetation and landscapes’. Landscape and Urban Planning Vol. 13, 1986: 29– 44, 29.
iv Kaplan R. and Kaplan, S. ‘The Experience of Nature’, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
v See papers listed on the website of the Society of Forest Medicine.