Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Human Need To Connect with Nature

Why are humans drawn to nature?

One day I found myself at the ocean, calmed by the sound of the ocean waves. As I watched families enjoy the water, my eyes focused on one small boy amidst the crowd. Undisturbed by the noise around him, he held a seashell close to his cheek as he intently listened to the sounds of the shell. It made me pause and think, why are humans drawn to nature?

We strive to decorate our indoor spaces with things that reflect nature, vigorous living plants, vibrant bouquets of fresh flowers, and murals of handsome landscapes. We appreciate large windows that provide an abundance of natural light and views of nature. We collect beautiful stones and seashells, and find unique ways to display them in our indoor environment. We bring water fountains indoors so we can hear that "familiar and relaxing trickling sound", and we even listen to music with sounds of the ocean and birds in hopes of getting better sleep. Why? This phenomenon of the human connection with nature is called the study of "biophilia". But is biophilia a recent discovery, or do these theories simply parallel the 6000 year old practice of Feng Shui?

The term "biophilia" literally means "love of life or living systems". It was first used by German-American social physiologist Erich Fromm (born March 23, 1900), to describe "a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital." The term is used in the same sense to suggest that biophilia describes "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life." It suggests the possibility that "the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology." It describes the attractions and positive feelings that people have toward certain habitats, activities, and objects in their "natural" surroundings.

Understanding the Benefits of Biophilia
It is becoming increasingly well demonstrated that biophilic elements have real, measurable benefits relative to such human performance metrics as productivity, emotional well-being, stress reduction, learning, and healing. More simply stated, being in nature, or surrounding ourselves with natural elements, essentially make us feel good and increase our sense of well being. Elements of nature make us relax and directly benefit our health by reducing stress. Less stress allows us to be more productive and happier.

Our new awareness brings acceptance of Biophilic Design. This design practice is now embraced by many designers, architects and builders. And now, we find articles on biophilia published by many credible professional sources including Environmental Building News (a sustainable practice publication for professionals) and AIA (American Institute of Architects).

Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, Ph.D coined the term biophilia in his book by the same name (Harvard University Press, 1984), arguing that human beings have an innate and evolutionary based affinity for nature. He defined the term as "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life."

Dr.Stephen R. Kellert is the Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and Senior Research Scholar at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Kellert says "in our haste to build quickly, designers lose or do not have enough time to make the natural elements play out in their designs." Kellert also states that "buildings deficient in facilitating the positive experience of nature hypothetically result in diminished human functioning, whereas facilities possessing biophilic features foster higher levels of human health and productivity". This design strategy, Kellert says, is "derived from the theory of biophilia, which posits that biologically based need developed over evolutionary time for affiliating with nature is instrumental in human health and well-being." It is part of our genetic heritage, Kellert says.

That means that for people to connect to buildings, natural elements must be present, whether actual-light, air, minerals, plants, animals, and other natural elements-or by representation in pictorial, elemental, or narrative form. The human connection to nature is rooted in evolutionary development, as these natural elements proved "instrumental in fostering fitness and survival."

Understanding the Ancient Philosophy of Feng Shui
It is commonly known that for centuries China has been recognized for its incredible landscapes. This inspiration has stemmed from nature itself. The glorious mountain ranges peaked with misty skies, winding rivers, fertile valleys; all host an incredible variety of color for the eye to behold. The poets of the eighth century celebrated this beauty in verse; the artists of the T'ang dynasty (A.D. 618-906) captured glimpses of this beauty on canvas; Taoist philosophers were religious disciples that studied the simplicity of nature and believed this would lead them to unity and harmony with the universe; last, a unique synthesis of these three paths arose more than 6,000 years ago, it is known as Feng Shui (pronounced "fung shway").

Basic Concept
In these ancient times wind and water were viewed as sacred signs. Feng Shui literally means "the way of wind and water". It is the ancient art of living within the rhythms of the land and seasons; it is the recreation of harmony and balance between man, earth and the forces of nature. The belief is if this is achieved, all may live in harmony and prosper.

One of Feng Shui's most important concepts is that of Ch'i (pronounced "chee"). Ch'i is translated as cosmic breath or energy. This force is believed to be the energy that gives plants, animals and man life energy. Ch'i, this breath of life, is known as a man's aura, his energy, his soul (Rossbach, Chinese Placement 25). It is also known as the force that creates mountains, volcanoes and rivers. In other words, Ch'i is the unified principle of energy. This energy is the basic foundation for Feng Shui.

The Parallel of Nature
The Chinese felt that mankind had a mystical link with the earth's energy; they believed that when the earth's Ch'i was healthy and in balance with nature, man in turn would thrive. In the practice of Feng Shui, this creation of harmony is done through the art of design and placement using harmonious shapes with thoughtful use of nature's elements within our living and working environments. These five elements of nature are used in rooms, landscapes and gardens, and even buildings.

The practice of Feng Shui includes careful use of balance of shapes, colors, light, and materials taken from the five element theory. Each element can be represented in many different forms including color.

The Five Elements:
• Wood
• Metal
• Water
• Fire
• Earth

It is the belief of Feng Shui that with the proper placement you will be in harmony and balance with the earth and its energy, therefore achieving good Ch'i. Good Ch'i is believed to directly influence health, good luck, relationships and even prosperity.

Although the practice of Feng Shui is remarkably mystical, and Biophilic Design stems from the scientific study of the physiological effects on humans; in essence at their core, these two philosophies share the same common concept, humans are happier and perform better when there is balance in their environment. In our high-tech world, more than ever, we need to feel connected to nature. Some of the best designs include sound, water elements, plants, and good natural light (also known as day-lighting). It seems through the study of biophilia, Western culture has fully embraced some of the most basic theories of the 6000 year old practice of Feng Shui. We finally understand that natural design helps humans. It calms us, and quiets us within. Sound a little Zen-like? It definitely is. The good news is that modern science has created measurable value for the ancient Feng Shui philosophy of "living in balance with nature." Now we call it "Biophilia."

Works sited:
Rossbach, Sarah. Interior Design with Feng Shui. New York: Penguin Group, 1987
Rossbach, Sarah. Feng Shui: The Chinese Art of Placement. New York: Penguin Group. 1991
Tracy Ostroff, Biophilic Design Connects Humans with Nature. AIA News 2007
Environmental Building News, July 1, 2006

Please visit our website at www.LorraineAlexander.com