What is biophilia? Definition and examples
what biophilia means: a concept originated by social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, and philosopher Erich Fromm to describe a psychological attraction to that which is alive and vital, it was popularized by naturalist, ecologist, and entomologist EO Wilson in his 1984 book of the same title as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.
Wilson’s definition positions biophilia as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life” – connections which may be grounded in our biology. Subsequent adoption into evolutionary psychology has seen the hypothesis justified on the basis that the pull of the living natural world could relate to the recency of the human adoption of lifestyles which are disconnected from that world. A gravitation towards plants, animals, and natural landscapes is therefore an expression of an innate preference.
Evolution could have selected for this predisposition because, in the deep past, it would have conferred increased knowledge of the natural world – meaning an improved ability to seek food, shelter, and avoid danger. In addition, urbanized living may simply not be suitable for beings which evolved in a natural setting (a concept perhaps borne out by contemporary epidemics of loneliness and of varied mental health issues).
The reason that we care about and for animals and plants could also have biological-evolutionary origins. The way that we generally see the faces of young mammals as more appealing than those of adults’ could speak to this evolutionary origin or biophilia. Animal young which require parental care in order to survive often share similar facial/bodily proportions and behaviors; these traits prompt their parents to provide the necessary resources. Because of this mechanism, humans find the young of other species which share these traits – larger-than-adult heads and eyes, small nose and mouth, plumpness; uncoordinated movements – engaging in the same way that we are programmed to respond to human babies. This perception of cuteness triggers reward-related areas of the brain, generatting “a warm feeling, [and/or the] feeling [of being] moved or touched”.
The strength of human biophilia can be harnessed in service to environmentalism and to improve human wellbeing, for example by building according to biophilic design principles, where “occupant connectivity to the natural environment” is increased by use of ‘direct nature’ elements (such as light, air, plants, and animals) and ‘indirect nature’ like natural materials and natural imagery. In terms of conservation, it may be possible for biophilic activities to strengthen human connections to nature, combating a disregard for other species and non-urban environments, which may result from a lack of access to the natural world. When inhabitants of the US, “on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors”, it is abundantly clear why it is necessary to induce this reconnection to nature.
Wilson’s hypothesis of our desire to associate with nature has been reinforced by findings included but not limited to children seeming to learn more effectively when exposed to nature at school (because it heightens their attention and decreases stress); hospitalized patients healing more quickly when given views of nature; and that even a short walk in a park can prompt more imaginative resolutions to problems.
- Science and technology journalist Clive Thompson’s article ‘The Biophilia Paradox’, in which he ruminates on “the psychic and psychological power of nature”
- Björk’s Biophilia.
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