The power of place revisited

One of the key ideas in my PhD (2008) was that we think with place; different places enable us to think in particular ways. Based on the research of people like Andy Clark and Christopher Preston, I explored how spending time in nature can profoundly change how we make sense of the world. I spent weeks trawling through books and papers on embodied knowing and situated cognition, but there was always more. I now know just how much research I missed, because science writer Annie Murphy Paul has written a fascinating exploration of the extended mind – how our thinking extends beyond the brain (2021). I’m keen to see what Paul has found that I missed and to find out what emerges when I revisit my work with all this new information.

Many thinkers have suggested that we think with place. Gregory Peterson surveyed the field in 2003 and concluded that trying to understand “the mind/brain in isolation from biological and environmental contexts is to understand nothing” (Peterson, 2003). David Abram rather more poetically suggests that a heavy boulder might lend our “thoughts a certain gravity, and a kind of stony wisdom” (Abram, 2004).

The bottom line is that there are thoughts you’ll have in a forest that would be literally unthinkable in a shopping mall.

trees in mist

My research was focused on environmental campaigners, many of whom were living on protest sites in natural spaces. I found that spending months living close to nature often changed how people made sense of the world. Rob Greenway used the term “the wilderness effect” to describe what happens to people on a multi-day trek in the wild. People would talk about how their minds feel ‘open’ and ‘airy’ in the wilderness, in contrast with ‘turgid,’ ‘tight,’ and ‘crowded’ in urban culture (Greenway, 1995). Those who live on road protest sites often feel something similar. Jon Anderson wrote: “I get a slowed down, rhythmic feeling in the woods and on the meadow, relaxed” (2004).

Once you’ve experienced that feeling, it’s easier to notice how different our thinking is in an urban environment. Barry Patterson is concerned that the city can easily become “a space built from symbols, a virtual reality, rather than physical structures & patterns of relationship” (Patterson, n.d.). Barry told me that such places can feel like a “sensory desert”. Rob, another activist I spoke to, explained how he finds it difficult to cope in cities partly because “in an urban environment everything is constructed, everything is based on ideas”. In a more natural environment, Rob’s thinking is very different, and he can “feel the energy flowing through me and I have that connection”.

Living on a protest site – or wilderness trekking – can free “energies bound up in habitual deformations of posture or movement” (Jackson, 2006).

Annie Murphy Paul explores a different and wider range of topics, but similar themes emerge. She explains that although “our sense of self may feel stable and solid, it is in fact quite fluid, dependent on external structure for its shape”. That makes perfect sense given what I learnt from living on a protest site for several months.

Paul draws on the latest research to illustrates how “physical places influence our thinking and behaviour far more than personality or other factors” (2021). She tells us about the work of the psychologist Roger Barker. Barker and his team carefully observed the behaviour of a group of children from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. A clear pattern emerged, but it had more to do with place than personality. Barker concluded that the “behaviour of a child often changed dramatically when he moved from one region to another, e.g. from classroom, to hall, to playground, from drugstore to street, from basketball game to shower room.”

There’s much richness in Annie Murphy Paul’s book and it’s very useful for the kind of embodied, nature-based work that I do with my clients. This is the book on the extended mind that I’ve wanted to read for the last couple of decades and it’s well worth the wait!

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