Ecopsychology studies the relationship between human beings and the natural world through ecological and psychological principles. The field seeks to develop and understand ways of expanding the emotional connection between individuals and the natural world, thereby assisting individuals with developing sustainable lifestyles and remedying alienation from nature.
A central premise of ecopsychology is that while today the human mind is affected and shaped by the modern social world, its deep structure is inevitably adapted to, and informed by, the more-than-human natural environment in which it evolved. According to the biophilia hypothesis of biologist E.O. Wilson, human beings have an innate instinct to connect emotionally with nature, particularly the aspects of nature that recall what evolutionary psychologists have termed the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness, the natural conditions that the human species evolved to inhabit.
The field of ecopsychology extends beyond the conventional purview of psychology, which had traditionally considered the psyche to be a matter of relevance to humans alone. Ecopsychology examines why people continue environmentally damaging behaviour, and to develop methods of positive motivation for adopting sustainable practices. Other names used to refer to ecopsychology include depth ecology, Gaia psychology, psychoecology, ecotherapy, environmental psychology, green psychology, transpersonal ecology, global therapy, green therapy, Earth-centered therapy, reearthing, nature-based psychotherapy, shamanic counselling, ecosophy and sylvan therapy.
Theodore Roszak is credited with coining the term "ecopsychology" in his 1992 book, The Voice of the Earth, although a group of psychologists and environmentalists in Berkeley, including Mary Gomes and Allen Kanner, were independently using the term to describe their own work at the same time. Roszak, Gomes and Kanner later expanded the idea in the 1995 anthology Ecopsychology. Two other books were especially formative for the field, Paul Shepard's 1982 volume, "Nature and Madness," which explored the effect that our ever-diminishing engagement with wild nature had upon human psychological development, and philosopher David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, published in 1996. The latter was the first widely read book to bring phenomenology to bear on ecological and ecopsychological issues, examining in detail the earthly dimensions of sensory experience, and disclosing the historical effect of formal writing systems upon the human experience of nature's agency, voice, and interiority.
Certain researchers propose that an individual's connection to nature can improve their interpersonal relationships and emotional wellbeing. An integral part of this practice is to remove psychotherapy, and the individual, from the interior of office buildings and homes and place them outdoors. According to the precepts of ecopsychology, a walk in the woods or a city park is refreshing because it is what humans evolved to do. Psychologists such as Roger Ulrich, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, Frances Kuo and others have studied the beneficial effects of inhabiting natural settings and of looking at pictures of landscapes on the human psyche. Community psychologist Guy Holmes' Walk and Talk groups have helped people with serious mental health diagnoses alongside other members of the general public to access the benefits of walking in green spaces in UK towns and cities.
Gardening is one way to experience the practical benefits of connecting with nature, particularly in the contexts of stress reduction, restoration, and awareness. Initial experimental research about stress-relieving effects showed subjects who gardened after situations of acute stress were able to fully recover their mood after the event and their cortisol level measurements indicated positive mood increases after gardening. The psychological benefits of interactions with nature appear intensified at a smaller, more compressed scale in gardens, offering an accessible, fast-paced view of plant life cycles. Also, the practice of domestic gardening can improve sense of self-efficacy across ages, particularly among the elderly. Plants are attributed as sources of positive distraction, shifting the focus from sensations of discomfort to aesthetic properties of plants, which creates perceived alleviation of pain. Individuals who have the opportunity to reconnect with nature through horticultural practices and in the wilderness can restore perceived sense of social connection, joy, and health. Interacting with nature may also decrease rumination: when a group of participants in one study went on a walk in nature they expressed lower levels of rumination and showed diminished neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area tied to mental illness, while participants who walked through urban settings experienced no changes in either respect.
Reasons to embrace nature
Ecopsychology explores how to develop emotional bonds with nature. It considers this to be worthwhile because when nature is explored and viewed without judgement, it gives the sensations of harmony, balance, timelessness and stability. Ecopsychology largely rejects reductionist views of nature that focus upon rudimentary building blocks such as genes, and that describe nature as selfish and a struggle to survive. Ecopsychology considers that there has been insufficient scientific description and exploration of nature, in terms of wildness, parsimony, spirituality and emotional ties. For example, parsimony is the best way to produce an evolutionary tree of the species (cladistics), suggesting that parsimonious adaptations are selected. Yet today, the brain is often seen as complicated and governed by inherited mind modules, rather than being a simple organ that looks for parsimony within the influences of its surroundings, resulting in the compaction in minds of a great diversity of concepts.
Cultures that embrace nature
In its exploration of how to bond with nature, ecopsychology is interested in the examples provided by a wide variety of ancient and modern cultures that have histories of embracing nature. Examples include aboriginal, pagan, Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu cultures, as well as shamanism and the more recent hesychast tradition. Of interest is how identity becomes entwined with nature, such that loss of those sacred places is far more devastating to indigenous people than often understood. Native American stories, in particular, illustrate a socially recognized sense of community between humans and the natural landscape. The Māori philosophy, and practice of kaitiakitanga, or eco-guardianship, and preservation emphasizes a deep connect between humans, and their environment. Eastern Orthodox monks led a contemplative life deeply intertwined with nature. Other lessons include how to live sustainably within an environment and the self-sacrifices made to tolerate natural limits, such as population control or a nomadic existence that allows the environment to regenerate. Moreover, certain indigenous cultures have developed methods of psychotherapy involving the presence of trees, rivers, and astronomical bodies.
Pain and delusions without nature
The field of ecopsychology intends to illustrate how environmental disconnection functions as an aspect of existing pathologies, without creating a new category. The contention is that if a culture is disconnected from nature, then various aspects of an individual's life will be negatively impacted. It also believes that without the influence of nature, humans are prone to a variety of delusions, and that to some degree life in the wild forms the basis for human sanity and optimal psychological development. It is also proposed that separation from outdoor contact causes a loss of sensory and information-processing ability that was developed over the course of human evolution, which was spent in direct reciprocity with the environment.
Elizabeth Dickinson, a business communication professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues against the outward behavior of spending time in "nature" as a cure to social and environmental problems that may instead need changes in "psyche and dysfunctional cultural practices".
- Biophilia hypothesis
- Conservation psychology
- Deep ecology
- Ecological grief
- Environmental psychology
- Green exercise
- Green Gym
- Green prescription
- Horticultural therapy
- Human–wildlife conflict
- Nature connectedness
- Transpersonal ecology
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