Living in tune with nature isn’t about being happy

Let me be clear: I’m totally on board with the “get out into nature more” bandwagon, and I’m thrilled to see increasing research showing how much being out in nature contributes to well-being and health.

But in this interview on Wired with the writer of The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, something stood out to me as problematic in how we often approach this natural buzz:

“We don’t recognize how happy nature makes us.”

I think we need some clarity around terms. If by “nature” we simply mean “green living things,” then sure, it makes us feel good. But if we mean “nature” as in the wilderness and the brutal forces therein, then happiness may be a quixotic cause.

Living in tune with nature means having humility and respect, which comes from an appreciation for the often volatile and seemingly senseless danger and risks that are inherent in living in nature. In other words, it’s not just about something we can “get” from nature, in a transactional way, but also about recognizing and assuming our proper place within the cosmos.

That’s a point, alas, I don’t expect many people will buy into, so I understand why we focus on the transactional benefits of nature.

So while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about our children. We want them to be healthy and happy, right?

As Williams points out so well in the interview, our kids are the ones suffering the most from our lack of attunement to nature (however one defines it):

“I think our institutions need to take [incorporating nature into urban infrastructure] on, especially schools. Where I live, only 10 percent of kids get the recommended recess time. Which is appalling, because we know that kids need this time to run around and have exploratory free play in order to just pay attention later in the day.

. . . If you have kids, the most important thing you can do is get your kids outside enough to develop their love for nature. You will be giving them a gift they will have their entire lives.”

And while we’re at it, let’s help them gain a requisite humility and respect for the forces beyond our ken.

https://www.wired.com/2017/03/spend-5-percent-day-outside/

Smörgåsbord: American Stupidity, Fracturing Communities, and Integrating Minds

I’m no longer calling this the “Sunday” Smorgasbord. Because I’m releasing this one on Saturday. Just because.

American Stupidity

Sol Stern is concerned about how dumb America has become. He blames curricular incoherence.

The incoherence of economic and political policy isn’t helping, either. According to a Harvard Business School report:

“Divisive political rhetoric and an uninformed national debate have confused the average American about what the country needs to do to restore the economy. . . .

“There is almost a complete disconnect between the national discourse and the reality of what is causing our problems and what to do about them. This misunderstanding of facts and reality is dangerous, and the resulting divisions make an already challenging agenda for America even more daunting.”

Our organizational systems are also pretty stupid.

And physical context can have a big impact: students become more stupid when it’s too hot in their schools. Heat “erases nearly three quarters of the impact of a highly effective teacher.”

Yet we still argue about whether global warming is even a thing.

Meanwhile, young men who could be working (and thinking) are playing video games, and the happier for it, so long as they can stave off reality while living at their parent’s house.

Fracturing Communities

But what kind of jobs are out there for many? Trickle-down ain’t working, and the incentives are for the rich to take all the money they can and horde it from the have-nots.

And they will do all they can to ensure the children of the have-nots keep out of the schools where they have stake in property, as the residents of Lincoln Towers on the Upper West Side demonstrate.

NY Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and state Senator Brad Hoylman, eager to show their support for affluent parents, claim that rezoning the school district would “fracture the community“—which is ironic, since the proposed rezoning would increase neighborhood integration across race and class. One would think that would actually be fostering greater community. . . but, you know.

Conor Williams warns that while millenial parents are less tied to geographic stakes, and thus interested in open enrollment systems, without policies that promote equity, such parents will find “ways to massage these systems into protecting their privilege.”

Integrating Minds

We can share, reinforce, and supplement our memories with our friends and build a “transactive memory system.”

And within our own brains, the more integrated the different parts of our brain are, the better we do on complex tasks.

Gardening is good for your health. So something to be said for all those school gardens.

And if you want kids to get creative, give them simple toys and let them be bored with them.

A Balanced Complexity

An interesting relationship to consider:

  1. A balanced complexity of ecosystem sounds = environmental health
  2. A balanced complexity of brain activity = mental health

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If you’re interested in the concept of self-organized criticality or networks, more here:

The Body as a Vector of Knowledge

By SONGMY (http://cc.nphoto.net/view/2008/11403.shtml) [CC BY 2.5 cn (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/cn/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“I’ve come to appreciate the body as a vector of knowledge, a source separate from the eyes that read books and the ears that hear lectures. In that sense, it is the most accessible vector we have; everyone possesses a body, but not everyone has access to books or lectures. I really believe that obscure ideas which are now thought of as the provenance of mathematicians can be made universally accessible, at least through analogy. If you can connect the reasons why a subatomic particle behaves a certain way to why you and your body behave a certain way, then perhaps it will help you understand the world you live in a little bit better, even if the tiny details get swept under the rug. Or, even better, perhaps it will make you want to understand this world better.”

—Madison Krieger, “Bacteria are Masters of Tai Chi” on Nautilus

The gestalt of the brain

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We’ve looked at nueroscientist Christof Koch’s theory of consciousness a while back, and a recent study pairing fMRI scans with network analysis pairs nicely with his premise.

To review, Koch’s theory is that consciousness has everything to do with connectivity (and nothing to do with distinguishing between inanimate and animate matter).

In this recent study at Vanderbilt University, researchers found:

“No one area or network of areas of the brain stood out as particularly more connected during awareness of the target; the whole brain appeared to become functionally more connected following reports of awareness. . . .

Consciousness appears to break down the modularity of these networks, as we observed a broad increase in functional connectivity between these networks with awareness.”

What does this have to do with schools?

Well, it correlates with the wider theme that you need to look at the connections between components and people and the contexts they operate within in order to truly understand what’s occurring within any given system. This is why a school is so very complex: they are dynamic and fluid, predicated as they are on social relationships, constrained within political, class, and cultural hierarchies and norms.

The Influence of Context On Character

“What is emerging is a new idea: that qualities like grit and resilience are not formed through the traditional mechanics of “teaching”; instead, a growing number of researchers now believe, they are shaped by several specific environmental forces, both in the classroom and in the home, sometimes in subtle and intricate ways.”

–Paul Tough, “How Kids Really Succeed” in The Atlantic

Diversity builds a student’s understanding of the world

“Schools are not just about whether you can read or calculate; they are about how robustly you perceive the world around you. Even if you go to high-performing schools, segregated white or segregated black schools, it can still be difficult for kids to understand the world they inhabit. They need to have some understanding of their community, and not just their immediate community, but in the broader sense.”

—Ansley Erickson, in an interview with Rachel Cohen on American Prospect, “Learning from History: The Prospects for School Desegregation

Relationships

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When I began teaching in a 5th grade self-contained classroom in East Tremont, I found myself constantly confounded, on a moment-by-moment basis, by the behaviors of my students. The raw emotions, aggression, anger, and frustration that my students expressed, and that I also experienced, was like I can only imagine as comparable to the experience of warfare. I dragged myself home each night feeling like I’d been turned inside out.

I found some solace in reading a copy of Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI), a book about a therapeutic system of strategies for supporting children experiencing crisis developed in a residential care setting. But I did not have any formal training in the method.

Fortunately, in my 2nd year of teaching, it just so happened that I was able to attend a workshop from two educators from D75 on a method called Therapeutic Crisis Intervention—a modified and simplified version of LSCI created by Cornell University specifically for classroom use. This was and continues to be the most influential and useful professional development I have ever attended. It helped me begin to shift my mentality and how I approached student behavior.

So it was with delight that I saw one of the educators who provided me that training, Dana Ashley, featured in American Educator. I urge you to read her piece, “It’s About Relationships,” in full.

“When teachers wonder “What should I do?” in response to challenging student behaviors, the answers are not as simple as they might seem. Although an individual teacher asks the question, the response must be nuanced enough to take into account the specific school and community. As in any field—not just in education—context is key.” (Bold added)

Birds make us better

I’ve always loved animals–I grew up alongside a German shepherd, an Amazon parrot, parakeets, and cockatiels. The parrot, Vincent, is still with me today. Here’s my current little vibrant family:

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Birds are, in some ways, representative of humanity’s simultaneous fascination and awe of the natural world, as well as utter disregard. Many bird species are declining due to human activity, their diverse voices silenced. Many are killed by pet cats allowed to roam freely outdoors. In the past, tribal kings would kill hundreds of parrots to string their iridescent feathers into gaudy headdresses and capes.

These beautiful creatures possess an intangible intrinsic value that makes our world a better place to live. But as you will see in the following stories, they can furthermore provide benefits that are more tangible. Just like greenery, natural light, and other environmental enhancers, the sounds, visuals, and presence of birds brings greater vibrancy into our existence.

♥ In this first story of aging well, Bill Thomas, a professor and physician on a mission to improve the care of our elderly, brings alive the concept that our environment has a tremendous impact on well-being. This story is not only about birds, of course, but birds are a part of the equation of what he terms the “Eden Alternative.”

“So he decided to transform the nursing home. Based on a hunch, he persuaded his staff to stock the facility with two dogs, four cats, several hens and rabbits, and 100 parakeets, along with hundreds of plants, a vegetable and flower garden, and a day-care site for staffers’ kids.

All those animals in a nursing home broke state law, but for Thomas and his staff, it was a revelation. Caring for the plants and animals restored residents’ spirits and autonomy; many started dressing themselves, leaving their rooms and eating again. The number of prescriptions fell to half of that of a control nursing home, particularly for drugs that treat agitation. Medication costs plummeted, and so did the death rate.

He named the approach the Eden Alternative — based on the idea that a nursing home should be less like a hospital and more like a garden — and it was replicated in hundreds of institutions in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia as well as in all 50 U.S. states (the animal restriction in New York was voted down).” . . . 

He moved beyond nursing homes to set up small, intimate residences called Green Houses. With private bedrooms and bathrooms, they offered dignity and privacy. Their size had an unexpected effect.

“Within six weeks, they had to send a truck around to pick up all the wheelchairs,” Thomas said of one house. “You know why most people [in nursing homes] use wheelchairs? Because the buildings are so damn big. . . . The buildings disable elders.”

—Tara Bahrampour¸ “We’re lucky if we get to be old, physician and professor believes” on Washington Post

Imagine if we had schools that were “Eden Alternatives”!

♥ In this next story on parrots and veterans of war, we learn that traumatized parrots and traumatized veterans can support one another in ways that traditional therapy may not always be able to address. According to the veterans, it has something to do with the nature of the birds themselves—something a bird lover such as myself can well relate to.

Taking hold of Cashew once again, she cupped her against her cheek. ‘‘Their spirit gives me the will to get up and do it another day. They’re all victims here. Kind of like what the veterans have been through, in a way.’’ Love lowered her hands and watched Cashew roll over once more on her back, a play position known as wrestling that is peculiar to caiques. ‘‘They don’t belong in captivity,’’ Love said, rubbing Cashew’s white breast feathers. ‘‘But they have a real survivor’s mentality. These forgotten great beams of light that have been pushed aside and marginalized. I see the trauma, the mutual trauma that I suffered and that these birds have suffered, and my heart just wants to go out and nurture and feed and take care of them, and doing that helps me deal with my trauma. All without words.’’ . . . 

‘‘You can look in their eyes,’’ Love said, returning with Bobbi, ‘‘any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense.’’ . . .

‘‘They look at you, and they don’t judge,’’ Jim Minick, the badly injured helicopter-squad member, told me. ‘‘The parrots look at you, and it’s all face value. It’s pure.

—Charles Seibart, “What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?” on The NY Times Magazine

As we know from research on stereotype threat, our children are intensely aware of stereotypes and judgment. Unfortunately, not every adult who works in a school with children experiencing acute and chronic stress and trauma looks at our children without some form of judgment, however unconscious it may be.

Perhaps if we included birds in our schools, children would gain a similar benefit from the non-judgmental gazes of our feathered brethren that veterans can gain.

♥ In this final story, a former drug dealer from DC’s love of birds helps him to discover his better self. He now works with children, introducing them to the beauty of raptors, to help them learn to engage with the natural world, and in the process, also discover their better selves.

“Rodney Stotts grew up selling dope and guns. But he’s always loved caring for birds. The drugs landed him in jail. The birds helped set him free.”

—Ari Daniel, “Rodney Learns to Fly” a Podcast on Transistor

A world without birds would be an immeasurably poorer place to live.

Brains That Are More Connected Reflect Better Life Outcomes

By Soon-Beom HongAndrew ZaleskyLuca CocchiAlex FornitoEun-Jung ChoiHo-Hyun KimJeong-Eun SuhChang-Dai KimJae-Won KimSoon-Hyung Yi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Smith and his colleagues ran a massive computer analysis to look at how these traits varied among the volunteers, and how the traits correlated with different brain connectivity patterns. The team was surprised to find a single, stark difference in the way brains were connected. People with more ‘positive’ variables, such as more education, better physical endurance and above-average performance on memory tests, shared the same patterns. Their brains seemed to be more strongly connected than those of people with ‘negative’ traits such as smoking, aggressive behaviour or a family history of alcohol abuse.

Marcus Raichle, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, is impressed that the activity and anatomy of the brains alone were enough to reveal this ‘positive-negative’ axis. “You can distinguish people with successful traits and successful lives versus those who are not so successful,” he says.” [Bold added]

Sara Reardon, “‘Wiring diagrams’ link lifestyle to brain function” on Nature.com