That thing you’re feeling… It’s biophilia

May 19, 2020

There are times when our hearts yearn for mountain views or to be surrounded by tall trees. Some of us might crave a coastal escape, listening to the waves and breathing in the salty air. Some of us need to work our hands in the soil and nurture plants.

Woodland scene with little dog in foreground

In the past year or two gardening for wellbeing has been a regular feature in mainstream media. They tell us that gardening is good for us, good for our mental, emotional and physical health and, of course, we know it’s true. However, using gardens and the natural world to support our mental and physical wellbeing is not a new thing. Through thousands of years, as early as the Ancient Egyptians, clinicians and therapists have used and promoted plants, gardens, farms and nature as a kind of healer. This is known today as Green Care.

More recently many people are finding a new solace and meaning in their own patch of land. When the coronavirus pandemic came to the UK our seed companies and online garden centres were suddenly overwhelmed with orders and reports tell us that there has been a significant growth in gardening activity in that time too. But why are our instincts are drawing us to nature?

It’s no accident that we find ease and contentment in these things. Everything we’re made of is tuned into nature, we are one of nature’s creatures. We feel it and it’s very real. If you’re one of those folks who has discovered a reassurance, calm and joy amongst plants and trees, that powerful thing you’re feeling is biophilia.

A hand holding blue irises

Biophilia is simply our natural affinity to living things. The term was popularised by E. O. Wilson, a biologist, naturalist and writer who published his book of that title in 1984. In it he explains that the human species evolved within the natural environment and for that reason we are deeply connected to it. In the timeline of human evolutionary history our period of existence in built environments is miniscule and because our innate bond is with the living, not the synthetic, artificial surroundings induce stress. Not only that, time spent in our new urbanised habitat has increased at a rapid rate and our connection with nature has become further and further detached. Anxiety, stress and depression all relate to our busy, work oriented lives, spending most of our time indoors, in front of screens or commuting to and from home and buildings with artificial light and not much greenery in sight.

This has been tested and observed in studies of how people respond to nature in healing settings, whether that be experientially (simply being in and observing nature) or interactively (caring for and tending to nature). Specially created healing gardens are installed at hospitals and rehabilitation centres where patients and visitors can get ‘away’ into these calming spaces. And social and therapeutic horticulture programmes are designed to meet the needs of vulnerable or isolated people through specific horticulture activities combined with social interaction.

Rainbow chard roots

So powerful is nature’s influence that Roger Ulrich found some very interesting outcomes in his study ‘View Through a Window May Influence Recovery From Surgery‘. Looking at the notes (from 1972 to 1981) of patients in a Pennsylvania hospital recovering from surgery he found that those who had a window view of trees healed more quickly, needed fewer analgesic painkillers and needed less support from nurses than patients in almost identical rooms but with windows facing a brick wall. One step further than that, Matthew J. Wichrowski, Senior Horticultural Therapist at Rusk Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Health, described in the Cultivating Place podcast that adding art and curtains with natural scenery and imagery into hospital rooms had similar results. He found that the patients in those rooms were overall more satisfied with the facilities and care they received than those patients in rooms without the nature imagery. If this small amount of access to natural views can make such a positive difference then imagine the impact of more immersive, meaningful contact – growing plants, creating flower art and actively looking after nature for example. Green care and more specifically, social and therapeutic horticulture is a much wider topic that I will expand on in future.

Just by tapping into that built-in relationship we have with our fellow living beings, we can use biophilia to improve our quality of life, feel well, ameliorate recovery and even support people with specific diagnoses. It’s amazing to have such potential healing available to us and I love knowing that my daily dose of nature is so very good for me.