The Naturalist Heuristic: A City Boy’s Version
I devote a chapter of On Second Thought to the “naturalist heuristic,” which is our mind’s powerful urge to connect with other living things. It’s related to E.O. Wilson’s notion of “biophilia,” an ancient and hard-wired need to get back to nature. An excerpt from the chapter follows, but here also is some interesting new research showing that even brief encounters with “nearby nature,” including urban woodlands, can boost our sense of well-being–and make us better stewards of the environment. As a city boy, I was very happy to discover these original findings.
“Travis the chimpanzee grabbed the TV news headlines for a couple weeks in the winter of 2009. The 14-year-old ape was a pet, raised from infancy in his home in Stamford, Connecticut, and according to reports he was thoroughly domesticated: Travis used door keys, had a place at the dinner table, watered the plants and used the Internet. He even drank an occasional glass of wine. Then one cold day in February, the 200-pound chimp turned on his next door neighbor unprovoked, mauling her face and leaving her in critical condition before the police arrived and shot the animal to death.
The talk shows were full of moral outrage. What were the owners thinking? Chimps are wild beasts, and will always be wild at their core, experts testified. Connecticut might make it legal to own pet apes, but does that make it moral and sensible? Who would want a pet ape anyway?
I was captivated by the sad story of Travis. Just a few days before, my wife and I had visited the National Zoo, near our Washington, DC, home, to see another ape. Mandara, a western lowland gorilla, had recently given birth, and we were among the hordes who wanted a peek at the newborn. And we lucked out. The accomodating mother nursed her baby while the crowd oohed and aahed and took snapshots.
Some people find zoos morally objectionable, too. But the fact is that more Americans visit zoos every year than go to all sporting events combined. Leaving aside the knotty ethical issues of domestication and captivity, the fact is that Travis’s owners and zoo goers share a common and powerful urge to affiliate with other living things, even wild things.
Especially wild things. Although many of the heuristics discussed in this book most likely have ancient evolutionary roots, the naturalist heuristic is completely defined by that pre-historical experience. It springs from adaptations that our species made to be safe in a particular environment, the vast savannahs of eastern Africa. Our connections to the natural world were not cultural and aesthetic, they were fundamental to survival; yet they shaped our culture and aesthetics indelibly. Also called “biophilia,” this deep-wired genetic impulse continues to mold our modern preferences for all sorts of things unrelated to survival: our choices of shelter and landscaping, our conservation efforts, and our pervasive attachment to pets. It’s a basic yearning to get back to the natural world that’s imprinted in our neurons.
I feel this. But because I’ve been a city boy for decades, I generally have to make do with substitutes for the real thing. I go to the zoo and take my hound to the park and head to the ocean whenever I can. I also watch TV. For example, one of my favorite wintertime activities is holing up and watching nature shows on television. I am mesmerized by rare footage of snow leopards in the Himalayas and wild stallions in the Rockies. I am especially addicted to “Man vs. Wild,” in which the well-named Bear Grylls strands himself in the world’s most inhospitable places and challenges Mother Nature with his wits. I want Bear to eat tarantulas and drink his own urine so I don’t have to.
I know these videos are a poor substitute for the real thing. Not only is our wilderness shrinking, but the time we have available to enjoy it is dwindling too. Nonetheless, even city people like me look for some sense of primal connection and emotional uplift through these vicarious video experiences. But is it possible to get the psychological benefits of wilderness through technological recreations, like nature TV, or do we actually need to feel the crunch of the snow and smell the pine needles? And what is it exactly that nature contributes to the human experience when we do get out in the elements?
Peter Kahn is one of a handful of environmental psychologists who have begun systematically exploring these questions. He and his colleagues at the University of Washington ran a series of experiments to see what benefit—if any—people get from high-quality technological versions of nature. To what extent do people distinguish between highly sophisticated versions of wildlife and the real thing? And what traits, specifically, does our “naïve biology” see as properties of living things?
Many of the studies involved children, because children are the most naïve humans. They offer a “pure” view of the naturalist heuristic in action. Kahn did a series of experiments involving kids’ interactions with AIBO, a robotic dog made by Sony. This is one of the most advanced robotic “pets” available on the market. It has a dog-like metallic form, moveable body parts, and sensors that detect distance, acceleration, vibration, sound and pressure. It is programmed to initiate interactions with humans—offering its paw, for example. And it’s even capable of rudimentary “learning”: That is, petting AIBO will reinforce certain behaviors, and swatting it will discourage them. The result is that over time, different AIBOs develop different personalities.
But it’s not a dog. It’s clearly a machine, at least to any adult. It’s not even soft, so lacks the virtues of a stuffed animal—the comfort of hugging and so forth. The idea was to make its behavior as dog-like as possible, and see how kids respond. The studies involved extensive interviews with kids about AIBO’s attributes, observations of their interactions with AIBO, and tests of the children’s reasoning about AIBO and other animals and artifacts. Specifically, they wanted to know if and how they kids saw AIBO as something separate and apart from ordinary stuffed animals—and how their play was different from imaginary play.
That’s where Shanti comes in. Shanti is an ordinary stuffed dog. For every session the kids had with AIBO, they had another one with Shanti for comparison. Kahn studied kids ranging in age from 3- to 6-years-old, allowing them to interact with the two “pets” for a total of about 45 minutes. Afterward he asked them questions like these: Is AIBO alive? What’s makes him happy? How do you know? Will AIBO eat this biscuit? Can AIBO feel happy? Could he be your friend? Could you leave him alone for a week? Can AIBO die?
Some clear conclusions emerged from the mass of data. One in four kids acted and talked about AIBO as an animate being, and at least half gave AIBO some biological properties. Even more—two of three—thought that AIBO had thoughts, social rapport, and moral standing. But—and it’s a big but—the kids said much the same thing about Shanti. So it appears much of their play and relations with AIBO were part of kids’ normal imagination.
Their behavior told a slightly different story, however. Most notable, the kids were much more fearful of AIBO than they were of Shanti, flinching when he approached. So they clearly sensed something beyond the traits of an ordinary toy. What’s more, they were much more likely to mistreat the stuffed dog. In fact, they very rarely mistreated AIBO, even though they were apprehensive around him at times. So they were clearly making some kind of fundamental distinction between the two—evidence of the naturalist heuristic’s power, even early in life.
These findings were further supported by a simple card-sorting task. When asked to categorize AIBO along with other artifacts and real dogs, the kids seemed to know that AIBO was something in between a living thing and an inanimate object. They saw the robotic dog as less like a desktop computer and more like a robot, stuffed animal or real dog. Interestingly, most the kids saw AIBO in moral terms: Large majorities said it was not okay to hit AIBO, to abandon him for a week at a time, or to toss him in the trash.
Does that mean that AIBO might promote moral development? Is that one of the roles of nature in human life? It’s possible, but Kahn believes that moral relationships with robotic pets will always be impoverished in several ways? What does it mean to have a moral relationship with something you clearly recognize as non-living? Is it any different than loving your trusty old Buick? He concedes that relations with robots may become more complex as technology advances and they become more and more animal-like, but the existing evidence suggests the relationships will always lack a moral dimension.
We should be careful not to romanticize nature too much. After all, our relationship with wilderness and wild animals has always been a mix of awe and fear. This is reflected in our language. Just think about the epithets we commonly use. Long before pop culture turned “bitchin” into a synonym for cool, “bitch” was one of the more derogatory epithets you could hurl at a woman. Indeed, man’s best friend doesn’t fare well in the human vocabulary of hate: mongrel, cur, dog itself—they’re all common insults. And it’s not just canines: Pig, rat, cow, mule, ape—if you want to malign your enemy, borrow freely from the animal kingdom. As I write this, there is a major brouhaha in the news about a New York Post cartoon that allegedly compared President Obama to the dead ape Travis.
Why is this? If you want to suggest that someone is less than human, why take it out on the beasts of the earth? You could just as easily marginalize a foe by comparing him to a machine, yet you never hear: “Get lost, you robot!” Or: “You son of an android!” Psychologists believe the vocabulary of epithets is just the flip side of our intense love and desire for affiliation with animals. In fact, two Australian psychologists examined this idea in the laboratory. Stephen Loughnan and Nick Haslam of the University of Melbourne decided to look behind overt insults to see if we do in fact malign others in a variety of ways, some more “natural” than others.
They hypothesized that, while animals and machines are both less than human, they are less than human in very different ways. That is, dogs and apes lack traits that are unique to humans, like high intelligence and moral sensibility, while androids and robots lack traits that form the very foundation of “human nature”: warmth, flexibility, animation. That is, despite our differences, we’re much more closely entangled with animals, mentally and emotionally. That’s the naturalist heuristic.
They studied this idea by having volunteers take a common word association test to see how readily they linked different traits with different types of people and with different non-humans. The volunteers were exposed very quickly to a lot of words: For example, “briefcase,” “fun-loving,” “hard-hearted,” “platypus” and “software.” They had to decide instantaneously whether to link “briefcase” (or “suit” or “boardroom”) with “fun-loving” or “hard-hearted” or “platypus” or “software.” Or instead of “briefcase,” they might be flashed “easel” or “surrealism” to see if they mentally linked it to “trusting” or “rude,” “kangaroo” or “machine.”
You get the idea. The rapid response times were important, because the scientists were trying to get as close as possible to automatic, unconscious associations. They wanted to see the automatic, heuristic brain in action. And guess what? Predictably, mechanical imagery was closely associated with commerce and its modern-day trappings; in other words, we have no ancient link to these later cultural developments. They’re business, and the province of our calculating, analytic mind.
But animals and animal imagery was strongly linked to artists and artistry, suggesting a deeper and more emotional connection. Furthermore, androids and business people had stronger mental connections to rational thought and sophistication, while animals and artists were more strongly linked to feelings and animation—the stuff of the experiential mind.
Or so the theory goes. Some of the most powerful evidence for our “biological bias” comes from studies of vision—how we actually see the natural world. Our mind’s eye has a special and intimate connection to all things natural. Consider this hypothetical encounter with a natural landscape:
You arrive by bus at a vacation spot you’ve never been to before. You get out and look around. What do you notice at first glance? Well, you can’t miss the large lake right in front of you; should be some good water skiing there. There’s a snow-capped mountain rising in the distance, and a copse of hemlock trees just to the left. The lodging must be in that chalet down to the right. The screened porch looks inviting, and the weather’s perfect.
Now imagine you’re a criminal on the lam, and you step off the same bus. What do you see in a glance? Well mostly you see a vast open space. Other than that small stand of trees, there is very little place to hide. You feel exposed, vulnerable. The water is simply an obstacle between you and freedom in that mountain beyond. Is there a path? You notice a man-made structure, always a threat. At least it’s not cold.
Same landscape, yet two very different perceptions. And this is not a matter of interpretation or judgment; a glance is way too rapid for that. It’s what the vacationer and the criminal actually see. That’s because even something as basic as vision is intimately rooted in our fears and in our ancient strategies for survival. Our brains evolved when there were threats everywhere, so we are highly tuned to extract the most meaningful information with even the first fleeting glance. A long lingering glance might prove fatal. The escaped convict (like our ancient ancestors) doesn’t have the luxury of noticing details like hemlocks and verandas or even lakes and mountains. The need and desire for safety trumps all other detail in the mind’s eye.
We all have a bit of the escaped convict’s vigilance deep-wired into our neurons. At least that’s the theory, which a pair of MIT scientists decided to test in the lab. Psychologists Michelle Greene and Aude Oliva wanted to explore how we see the natural world in the split second of a first encounter. What information is so essential and so privileged that it’s processed instantaneously? And what’s mere gilding that can be added later, as we continue to scope out the new territory?
The psychologists had volunteers look at hundreds of color photographs of various natural scenes, and very rapidly categorize them. Sometimes they were asked to categorize the landscapes according to common physical features like oceans and forests and fields and rivers. Other times they classified the landscapes according to fundamental survival features—ease of navigation, openness, naturalness and temperature. The researchers timed how long it took the volunteers to categorize each vista, down to the millisecond.
It’s remarkable how fast the mind “sees” what it needs to see. The survival features of these landscapes were processed most instantaneously—as quickly as 19 milliseconds, much faster than a finger snap. The common geographical features were also processed fairly quickly—but almost as an afterthought compared to the automatic perception of things like open space and escape routes. This makes sense, since categories like mountain and lake came much later to humans, as the slow and analytic mind evolved. They are linguistic luxuries that entered the brain much later in evolutionary time.
But here’s the most interesting part. The brain was at its absolute fastest when categorizing landscapes simply as natural, as opposed to manmade. Eons of evolution appear to have linked the brain intimately to the natural world—but not yet to the civilized world, which still requires some (relatively) slower analysis to comprehend. This raises the intriguing possibility that we can know a landscape is natural even before we “see” the mountains and meadows and waterfalls that give it its nature.
But how do we stay connected to these natural forms in the modern world? Kahn and others have been studying our interactions with mountains and oceans and forests—or at least their likenesses. In one experiment, for example, they installed plasma TV “windows” in workers’ otherwise windowless offices for a period of 16 weeks, and then took various measures of psychological function. They found that those with the “views” of parkland and mountain ranges had a greater sense of well-being, clearer thinking, and a greater sense of connection to the natural world.
All that means, of course, is that HDTV is better than a blank wall. To see if the televised version stacks up against the real thing, Kahn ran another experiment in which some office workers had an actual view of a natural setting through a window—the old-fashioned glass kind—while others got the plasma version and still others the blank wall. They exposed all the workers to low levels of stress, but enough to make their heart rate go up; then waited to see how long it took them to calm down.
The results were indisputable. Only the actual view of the outdoors had a calming effect; the plasma window was no more restorative than the blank wall. In other words, the technological version of nature—even when it came in HDTV quality—couldn’t fool the neurons.
But what exactly is being restored by such immediate connection with nature? Or, put another way, what are we missing without these experiences? An entirely different experiment sheds some light on this question. University of Michigan psychologist Marc Berman believes that nature actually shifts our brain from one processing mode to another. That is, when we walk around city streets with a lot of stimulation, we need to employ a very focused and analytic kind of attention; that’s how we process rush-hour traffic and police sirens and other urban noises. That’s also the kind of attention we need to study for exams, make financial decisions, run meetings, and so forth—the business of daily life. Some scientists label this kind of attention “executive control.”
But this kind of attention can get depleted. Interacting with nature shifts the mind to a more relaxed and passive mode, allowing the more analytical powers to restore themselves. At least that’s the theory, which Berman and his colleagues tested in a clever experiment. They gave a group of volunteers a very difficult cognitive test that measures the kind of focused attention needed for school and work. They then gave them an additional task to further deplete their normal ability to concentrate. This was the laboratory equivalent of having one of those hectic, demanding days at the office. Then all the volunteers took a three-mile walk. But half the volunteers took a leisurely stroll through a secluded part of the Ann Arbor Arboretum, while the others walked down Huron Street, a busy thoroughfare in downtown Ann Arbor. When they got back to the lab, the psychologists again measured their focus and concentration.
And guess what. Those who had been on the nature walk had significantly better focus and attention than those who had been required to negotiate the city streets. It appears that interacting with nature requires a different and less demanding form of attention, and that the temporary switch-over allows workaday concentration to replenish. Getting into the woods and away from the hustle-and-bustle actually equips us to cope better with the cognitive demands of daily life.
So does living in our modern civilization have serious and permanent psychological consequences? Some scientists think it might—and perhaps already does. Kahn has done extensive cross-cultural studies of children’s values and attitudes about open space and animal life and forests and plants and water—and the degradation and disappearance of all these things. He has traveled the globe to see just how universal these feelings and attitudes are, interviewing kids from the Amazonian rain forests of Brazil to urban centers of Lisbon and Houston.
Here’s just one example from that extensive work: When he talked to African-American children in inner city Houston about air pollution, most seemed to grasp the idea of pollution—and to know it was not a good thing. But when he probed them further, the kids showed no concern about their air. That is, they did not think that Houston was a polluted city, even though it was at the time (and remains) one of the most polluted cities in the country.
These kids ranged in age from 7- to 11-years-old. They knew about environmental degradation in the abstract—the idea was in their analytic brain, from lectures or books or whatever—but they weren’t experiencing it. They had no idea that the air they breathed was a far cry from the clean air their grandparents breathed.
Kahn finds this worrisome. He believes that, with every generation, kids are losing some of their experiential knowledge of the natural world—and their expectations for what is a normal interaction with nature—creating a kind of generational amnesia. If nature is indeed a source of mental and emotional replenishment, this could emerge as one of the most compelling psychological issues of the not-so-far away future.
Dr. Seuss wrote about this kind amnesia in 1971. In his children’s book The Lorax, a child ventures into a desolated region to seek out the Once-ler. The Once-ler is both the environmental villain and the institutional memory for society; only he recalls when the region was forested by colorful Truffula trees, which his greed eventually destroyed. The book is guardedly hopeful, because while the child suffers the kind of generational amnesia Kahn has documented, his inner naturalist is still alive, deep in his neurons.
The concern of environmental psychologists is not that people can’t adapt to change and loss in the natural world. It’s that we can adapt. We have adapted to all sorts of environmental change over the eons. It’s possible that right now our brains are rewiring to disconnect with the rudiments of the natural world—and to bond with civilization. The question is: Will we, because of our deep heuristic need to affiliate with nature, suffer unknown psychological costs? AIBO and plasma windows may make up for some of the loss, but they may not restore us to a full measure of human flourishing.
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