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/

Passion Does Not Equate With Knowledge

It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention.

. . .“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write.

—Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Facts Don’t Change Minds” in The New Yorker

Experience is Relational and Subjective

Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain. Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences. (Bold added)

–Robert Epstein, “The Empty Brain” on Aeon

Epstein’s challenge to the “information processing” model is highly relevant to education and worth considering the implications of. I would pair this reading with the quantum theory of QBism: QBism challenges the notion of an “objective reality,” suggesting instead that reality lies in the eye of the beholder.

Mental Practice Just as Important as Physical Practice

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There is now compelling evidence that motor imagery promotes motor learning. . . . It turns out that 20 minutes is the optimal amount of time for a mental practice session, according to a meta-analysis of many physical activities.

—Jim Davies, “Just Imagining a Workout Can Make You Stronger,” in Nautil.us

Honnold keeps a detailed climbing journal, in which he revisits his climbs and makes note of what he can do better. For his most challenging solos, he also puts a lot of time into preparation: rehearsing the moves and, later, picturing each movement in perfect execution. To get ready for one 1,200-foot-high ascent at the cutting edge of free soloing, he even visualized everything that could possibly go wrong—including “losing it,” falling off, and bleeding out on the rock below—to come to terms with those possibilities before he left the ground.

. . . “It’s better over time if you can put yourself in a situation where you experience some fear, but you overcome it, and you do it again and again and again,” Monfils says. “It’s hard, and it’s a big investment, but it becomes easier.”

—J.B. Mackinnon, “The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber” in Nautil.us, about free solo rock climber Alex Honnold

Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing.

. . . What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations. Through years of practice, they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields.

—Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

As these various quotes demonstrate, mental practice can be just as critical to performance as physical practice. This type of practice is therefore important to consider in terms of classroom teaching and learning.

This past winter, I was starting to feel set in my ways, so I decided to begin learning a new instrument and began taking tabla lessons. Tabla, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a drum used in classical Indian music.

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Tabla

It has a long tradition and is accompanied with a syllabic language (“bols”) that signify each type of sound. My teacher constantly stresses the importance in rehearsing compositions mentally as a part of daily practice. His advice makes a lot of sense in light of the research.

One of the best classroom teachers I know prepares by mentally and verbally rehearsing the day’s lesson in the morning.

How can we assist our students in developing the skills necessary to engage in this kind of practice? While it’s pretty clear how this type of practice can accompany a performance, such as sports, dance, music, or theater, I wonder how mental rehearsal could accompany practice in specific academic domains, such as writing, math, or science? How could mental rehearsal be beneficial in related service areas for students with Individualized Education Programs, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and counseling?

Your Environment is the Invisible Hand

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Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. We tend to believe our habits are a product of our motivation, talent, and effort. Certainly, these qualities matter. But the surprising thing is, especially over a long time period, your personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by your environment.

—James Clear, “Motivation is Overvalued. Environment Often Matters More.

Context can cultivate divergent perspectives

‘”In contexts that allow people to develop divergent perceptions about each other’s positive and negative idiosyncrasies, the traditional trapping of market forces falls away, permitting individuals to seek mates on a more level playing field,’ the researchers write.”

—Ana Swanson, “The real reason some people end up with partners who are way more attractive” on the Washington Post

Monitoring Our Environment May Lead to Self-Control

Vision

“stopping may actually be a relatively automatic and effortless process, and, in some sense, a mere by-product of being appropriately mindful of environmental change. Instead of stopping, the central role is occupied by the ability to attend vigilantly to features of the world that might demand changes in behavior.

—Cognitive Neuroscience Society blog, “Children Need to Learn Context to Know When to Stop

This interview is a bit difficult to parse for a layman like myself, but it jibes with my ken.

It makes more sense to train a child to become aware of the physical changes that can occur during emotional stress rather than merely techniques for “stop and think.” You can’t stop and think if you aren’t able to monitor yourself enough to know that you need to stop and think!

Mitigating Racial Bias Requires Conscious Effort

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“The problem of bias in facial recognition systems is perhaps one of the easiest to understand and to solve: a computer only knows the kinds of faces it has been shown. Showing the computer more diverse faces will make it more accurate.”

—Rose Eveleth, “The Inherent Bias of Facial Recognition” on Motherboard

“The studies are numerous and conclusive – we have a significant race problem in empathy. While it will be hard for most of us to know whether or not our brains are reacting equitably in situations that call for empathy, it should be easier to build concern and care for people of other races on a conscious level. Cultivating a more diverse group of friends and engaging in some perspective-taking exercises, mindfully acknowledging the similarities between yourself and others, seem like good steps in the right direction.”

—Princess Ojiaku, “Is everybody a racist?” on Aeon

The Doorway Effect

One of the many delightfully mysterious "closes" of Edinburgh's old town.
One of the many delightfully mysterious “closes” of Edinburgh’s old town.

“Our memories, even for our goals, are embedded in webs of associations. That can be the physical environment in which we form them, which is why revisiting our childhood home can bring back a flood of previously forgotten memories, or it can be the mental environment – the set of things we were just thinking about when that thing popped into mind.

The Doorway Effect occurs because we change both the physical and mental environments, moving to a different room and thinking about different things.”

–Tom Stafford, “Why you forget what you came for when you enter the room” on Mind Hacks

The Power of Obliquity

M0015339 Indirect percussion method practised by Apache Indians
CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

We have a few more items to chalk up to the power of unconscious stimuli and bias on our feeble human minds:

  1. The basic shape of a logo is enough to bias your perception of that company’s product.

“Five experiments document that the mere circularity and angularity of a brand logo is powerful enough to affect perceptions of the attributes of a product or company,” the researchers write in the Journal of Consumer Research.

—”The Shape of a Logo Has a Powerful Impact On Consumers” on Association for Psychological Science

2. White college students associate black faces with violence and guns, even when those faces are as young as 5 years old.

“Our findings suggest that, although young children are typically viewed as harmless and innocent, seeing faces of five-year-old Black boys appears to trigger thoughts of guns and violence,” said lead study author Andrew Todd, an assistant professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa.

—”Faces of Black Children as Young as Five Evoke Negative Biases” on Association for Psychological Science

3. On a more positive front, conducting a value affirmation exercise can not only mitigate the “stereotype threat” for individual students who may be discriminated against, it furthermore seems to transfer that benefit to the entire class.

New research suggests that when students who are vulnerable to being stereotyped complete exercises that cause them to reflect on their own personal values, they perform better in class — and so do other students around them, even if those other students don’t complete the self-reflection tasks themselves.

—Jacqueline Howard, “Shielding Students From Stereotypes Helps Way More Than We Thought” on the Huffington Post

As the lead researcher in the latter study stated, “Who would have thought that the indirect benefits of an intervention could be almost as large than the direct benefits?”

Yet more evidence that speaks to the power of oblique methods of influence.

For more posts on this blog about obliquity, click here.