Stimulating the senses

Thoughts on biophilia and biophilic design (part 1) – it’s as much to do with human physiology as it is an emotional response

I’ve been thinking a lot about why Biophilia and biophilic design has much more to do with evolution and the way our senses work, rather than the emotional response to nature that is so-often suggested. 

Let’s look at one definition of biophilia. The most famous, and most important is that given by EO Wilson – the man who catalysed the development of the concept. In 1984, he defined Biophilia as “…the innate affiliation people seek with other organisms and especially the natural world.”

This is a strong statement.  Wilson also speaks of the human bond with other species, which is beautifully explained in his book. This all suggests that biophilia is essentially an emotional need to connect with nature and natural surroundings. 

Stephen Kellert, the grandfather of biophilic design, spoke of “our physical, emotional and intellectual inclinations for nature and life”. By expressing our need to connect with nature on an emotional level, we instinctively understand the concept.  We remember that being in natural places makes us feel good and that the countryside or woodlands are instantly relaxing.

Bringing nature into our built environment – our offices and cities – is a great response to that feeling of calm we get when in nature. However, let’s examine why being in nature really makes us feel comfortable.

I contend that it isn’t wholly a psychological or emotional need, but much more of a physiological need, based on humanity’s evolutionary history and our origins in the plains of Africa.

If you were to take a mole away from its burrow and place it in an open, sunny garden, such as where we might want to spend some time, it would be stressed, frightened and try to dig a new hole. Its senses are not able to cope with the bright light, the lack of close skin contact and the shrill noises of birdsong.  Millions of years of evolution have produced a creature that thrives in dark, damp, tight tunnels.  This is where it finds food, shelter and other moles with which to mate.  If we were to create an environment for a captive mole, it too would be dark, damp and tight, because that would be the humane thing to do.

A mole would rather be underneath this garden than in it!

When we create environments for humans – offices, for example – we tend to make them very space efficient, very energy efficient and completely unlike the environment where our species has spent over 99% of its evolutionary history. 

Not our natural habitat

Humanity evolved on the plains of Africa.  Wide open spaces with undulating landscapes.  The vegetation was scattered and grew in clusters; water was plentiful and skies were bright. 

Humans use their eyes to look for food and threats – sight is our most developed sense.  Colour perception for us – the part of the spectrum that we can see – enables us to spot shapes (food or danger) against the background of vegetation, and recognise when fruits are ripe. 

Our hearing is fine tuned to the noises of prey animals and the sound of running water.  Our sense of touch helps us to determine the quality of materials that we can use for shelter, and our sense of smell tells us what is safe to eat. Our senses are highly adapted to that environment. Those senses evolved to enable our species to survive.  If we stress our senses, we react as if there is a threat to our survival.  Stress hormones prepare us to fight or flee. Our senses become overwhelmed or under used. 

Biophilic design is the trend of the moment and is associated with wellbeing. However, many designers think mainly, or only, in terms of the emotional, almost spiritual, need to connect with nature. This can be an effective approach, is easily understood and has a lot of merit. 

However, I think we can create more effective spaces if we unpick what we mean by an emotional response and use a sensory approach to design.  Let’s stimulate our senses the way nature intended.

Footnote: some books worth having a look at. Nature by Design, by Stephen Kellert, Biophilia by Edward O Wilson and Biophilic Design be Kellert, Heerwagen, et al

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