A recent New York Times articles asks :”Is There An Ecological Unconscious?“
Aside from citing a bunch of studies and trying to draw general conclusions from them (which is an incorrect use of science, by the way, for a great discussion of this, see John Sifferman’s most recent blog post), the author describes the field of ecopsychology, from its inception to present attempts at connecting individuals’ psychology and environment.
The article cites a study by Marc Berman, at the University of Michigan, whose study “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature” describes attentional gains after participants have walked through a setting full of “nature” (in this case, the Ann Arbor Arboretum…is that redundant?!).
But what is “psychology?” Until that question is answered succinctly, all “psychological” studies are potentially redundant and misleading.
No one has ever answered that question in concrete terms. Wikipedia says that: Psychology (lit. “study of the soul” or “study of the mind“) is an academic and applied discipline which involves the scientific study of human (or animal) mental functions and behaviors.
But what is the “mind?” (let’s leave questions of the “soul” out of the discussion for now). Apparently it’s a combination of “mental functions and behaviors.”
Again, Wikipedia says that “mind” is: the aspect of intellect and consciousness experienced as combinations of thought, perception, memory, emotion, will and imagination, including all unconscious cognitive processes. The term is often used to refer, by implication, to the thought processes of reason. Mind manifests itself subjectively as a stream of consciousness.
But where do all of those things come from?
Most of psychology, if you’ve ever taken a psychology course (or several) addresses “mind” as a thing separate from physical reality. Theorists make up their own paradigms of mind and mentality, of “mental functions and behaviors.”
The terrible redundancy can be seen most clearly in the field of Child Psychology, or Child Development. There are five or ten competing theories of child development at different stages of maturation. All are right, most are completely redundant with one another. Many (if not most) create definitions of the child’s developmental process that are obviously derived solely from the researcher’s personal experience…no “objectivity” there (the question of “objectivity” is quite another question entirely).
This redundancy seems extraordinarily silly to me. For one, can’t we all just get along?! But for another, where does this “mind” come from? I mean, “mind” doesn’t just exist on its own, apart from the physical body…apart from “behaviors.” Does it?
I think the development of the field of psychology stems largely from the Cartesian mind/body dualism, and an underlying belief in “human supremacy” in the Order of Things.
That is, human beings always believe that they are somehow specially different, better, “more special” than anything else in nature. We always try to find qualities that separate us from the “lower animals.”
But, one by one, all of those arguments have been disproved. I’ve heard them all – human beings have language (all animals have language); human beings are creative (ever see a spiderweb?); we use tools (ever see an ape catch termites with a long blade of grass?); we are self-conscious (debatable, and impossible to prove that other animals are not also self-aware/conscious)…etc.
The list goes on, but always with the same result – we are no “better” than anything else this planet has produced, we’re simply “different.”
This led, in combination with the Cartesian separation of mind from body, to a belief that our thoughts were somehow separate from our bodies, from our “physical” selves.
“Ecological Unconscious” or “ecopsychology” is one attempt to put those things back together, but it has skimmed over one of the most important questions – “When studying psychology (the mind), what exactly is it that we are studying?”
In reference to this, I’d like to cite a 2007 study by Japanese researchers (following up on several earlier studies of a similar nature). The study is called “Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction,” and, similar to Berman’s study, looked at the effects of walking or sitting in a wooded environment on physiology.
Needless to say, the effects were drastic, and positive. Physiological markers of stress (salivary cortisol, resting heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) decrease in a “natural” environment.
Do the participants’ “psychologies” change? Undoubtedly, yes.
You see, for me, “psychology,” or “mind,” is just a product of the physical body. Sure, at some level it also becomes the product of the interaction of itself (recursive thought) and anything else (mind-to-mind, mind-thinking-about-itself), but without the physical body, there is no mind.
How can I assert this? Well, you can “change your mind” by changing your body. If you’re feeling blue, go out for a run. It will change your mind.
So when fields like “ecopsychology” spring up, or talk of an “ecological unconscious” begins, I wonder why. Why is it that we want to separate our physiology from our thoughts (or vice versa)? Why is it that we hold onto this belief that there is some “magic” happening in our gray matter?
While it is magical that we have such a complex brain, the brain is not the mind. The entire body is your brain. To quote George Leonard:
Some researchers in the comparatively new field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) argue that the interplay of peptides with peptide receptors on the surface of cells throughout body and brain carries considerably more information than all previously discovered brain mechanisms combined. Imagine a pharmacy with well over a hundred potions that can be mixed in all possible combinations and proportions, and you can begin to understand the power of this chemical information system.
So don’t speak of an “ecological unconscious” as something separate from your body. Don’t speak of nature as something separate from your body. You are continuous with your habitat, with your environment. This is why people living in cities get chronic diseases associated with urban environments – associated with pollution. This is why people have the same diseases as their friends.
Everything “external” to your body can and should be considered your “external organs.” There is nothing you see that does not affect your physiology on some level. There is nothing you hear, smell, touch, that does not do the same. At the same time, there are many things that you cannot sense in any way that are affecting your physiology…that are “creating your mind” – the invisible pollutants in your environment, the trees you do not notice that supply you with oxygen, the microbiomes that inhabit your body.
Stop separating your unconscious from your physical self. And stop separating your physical self from the totality of your environment. When you do that, you regain control over who you are and how you behave.
Only then can you finally say that you have a “mind.”