Why we love a landscape is a brain thing
Nature is good for people, to state the obvious. But did you ever wonder why a place, a landscape affects or even overwhelms you, to stay with you forever? Why do we feel like this? What is it that we find there? Above all, is there an explanation for the appreciation?
Certainly. It is a brain thing, emotions aren’t free running, haphazardly wild going currents, whatever happens. Our brain, and especially the older parts of it, is responsible for what we go for, or run away from.
The richness of green and the ‘I feel good’ of the brain
Overall, nature is beneficial for human well-being and health. Hospital patients recovering in a room with a view, i.e., green, trees, plants, do better than their fellow patients who only had brick walls to look at. Peace and relaxation, fascination and devotion, stress-reduction and well-being. From a rooftop terrace, a city park, the ten square meter that is your garden, national parks, to the grand and magnificent outdoors, it’s the natural surroundings that make us feel good. Not that cities and urban environments make us feel bad, it’s only that here the ‘feeling good’ is obtained by other stimuli. The human activity that is concentrated in cities – economic, social, cultural – all the interesting and exciting opportunities, the buzz, they are important yet ‘mean’ something to us on another level.
From Grövelsjön to the Scottish Highlands
My preferred world, the best of natural surroundings, is green, blue and grey. The woods and the forests, the lakes, rivers and little streams, the mountains and the hills. Above, the big blue sky, sometimes veiled in grey or dotted with doodle-shaped clouds. White, all white in winter. It is the Grövelsjön area, in the Swedish province Dalarna, very close to the Norwegian border. It is a part of Gränslandet. Nine protected nature areas, covering 2105 square kilometers. Untouched, remote wilderness.
Trying to figure out why I prefer and treasure this particular part of the world, I took a closer look at the places that ranked almost equally high. Was there anything they have in common? There was. These landscapes made me feel I did belong there, it felt like ‘home’. Not home as in ‘house’ but more a connection between place and the inner self. It simply is ‘me’, that is how ‘being here’ is experienced. It is, obviously, a strong positive emotion – this is important because feeling you belong somewhere doesn’t automatically imply it always feels good.
The Finnish language has a word for it, silunmaisema. Soul landscape, that is the closest we can get to its meaning. A place with the power to unlock your heart and stay with you, wherever you are.
Silunmaisema – the landscape of the soul
Bare and beautiful
The features of these landscapes include the emptiness, bareness, spaciousness that is typical for what is called in Sweden fjäll. A mountainous region, here it comes with the tundra vegetation. Or the highlands, especially the highland plateau. It does make sense, at least to me. My number one place is the Grövelsjön area (Sweden), followed by the Hardangervidda (Norway), The Scottish Highlands and the North Sea coast (The Netherlands), the odd one out.
Not that it’s all bareness out there. A closer look reveals what would spark the painter’s eye. Rock, stones with a history that goes back some 400 million years ago. Mountain ranges formed, caused by the closure of the Iapetus Ocean, when the continents of Laurentia, Baltica and Avollonia collided. Deep Time changes with a name, the Caledonian orogeny.
The Caledonian oregony
With the Caledonian oregony, 490-390 million years ago, mountains were built in the northern parts of Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, Svalbard, eastern Greenland and parts of north-central Europe. The Caledonian mountain range was created, with peaks much higher than today. During the next 100 million years, the whole area was levelled, the resulting creation a flat plate. The mountains we see now were created between 300 million and 50 million years ago, when the west side of this plate was thrusted up, just off the Norwegian coast. Creating an angle, the west side much higher than the east side. The mountainous border between Sweden and Norway, is the so-called Kjølen – the Keel, because it looks like an upturned boat.
Old land. The very same crust. My deep appreciation for this Swedish mountainous area, the Hardangervidda in Norway and the Scottisch Highlands, it falls into place. They are the same age. It’s family. They share stones, colours, and scents, because heather, mosses and plants that have their habitat in higher altitude regions, do have that typical fragrance that travels with the wind.
We came from the savannah and it still affects us
The human-landscape relationship has an ‘inborn’ basis, going back to the survival needs of primitive humans. Their environment called for perceptual capabilities and predispositions, today – on a psychological level –these are still in operation. They are explained by the so-called Savannah theory. It is based on the idea that humans continue to prefer the open, mildly flat landscapes, with good access to water which is also in direct view, a clear way to detect predators and a safe place to avoid them. It makes sense. In order to survive there must be a shelter and there must be food. In addition, seeing the food running by before it acts upon the very same basic need, is helpful too.
Taking into consideration that an unfamiliar environment triggers the threat-detection system of the brain, the evolutionary logic calls for meeting the aforementioned goals. What is a threat? Everything that moves, basically.
“No matter what environment humans are in, survival depends on being able to focus on what’s important – generally what’s moving. That skill hasn’t changed, it’s just moved online.” (Alyson Gausby, Microsoft Canada)
A totally empty environment, which could be consired positive regarded from the threat detection point of view, is however a barren one. No vegation means not much food-to-be as it needs green too. Hence it is not the ideal place for survival in the long run.
Landscape preference and personality
Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you who you are. It is something like this. Researchers delved into the subject of who prefers what and came up with, in short, that certain aspects of personality correlate significantly with landscape preferences. For instance, ‘emotionally stable’ people prefer landscapes containing structure, rhythm and recurrent patterns. And if you score high on ‘sense of responsibility’, you are more likely to say no to hostile, defoliated or wintery natural surroundings. So choose your own emoji when you are hopelessly devoted to winter and find yourself thinking: ‘Probably research is wrong here?’
Abello and Bernaldez also put it in a broader perspective:
The affective system brought into play in landscape appraisal is a consequence of wider personal strategies concerning an individual’s attitude towards the world and his fellow human beings.
Oh. This really makes you reflect on things…what if…
Place identity and place attachment
Transforming space into place is a key activity on an existential level. Our brain enables us to visualise and memorise places that are ‘good’. Place attachment, which is the next step, is a positive emotional bond between an individual and the environment. This builds up an internal orientation too. This self-reference could be described as the ties that we make and integrate into our being. In this way place identity represents certain aspects of self identity, induced and reflected by the environment. This comes with all the aesthetic, social and personal meanings attached.
The outdoors as home – we can run for pleasure now
Even the most wonderful surroundings aren’t just there to stare at. The magical will eventually turn into the familiar and even the best may fall victim to boredom. Sometimes we want more, because after all all we’re human, with two basic needs. We want to connect and we need adventure. Stability and curiousity. The Scandinavian countries offer an abundance of opportunities for outdoor activities, from hiking, ice fishing and dog sledding to high adrenaline sports. Everywhere on this globe one can find great spots. Scandinavia with its absolutely stunning scenery, beautiful landscapes and the vastness of the wilderness, has added value. It is not densely populated. And nature is always within reach.
We can run for pleasure. That’s kind of new…
In this part of the world we are very fortunate. We don’t have to run away from a hungry tiger that sees us as its next meal. We can run for pleasure. Or enjoy the mountains for skiing instead of moving to another place where resources are more plentiful. Engaging in such activities and finding the most beautiful place, the one that comes with a deeper meaning, is making you feel rich.
- P. Abello and G. Bernaldez, Landscape preference and personality, Landscape and Urban Planning, Volume 13, 1986, pages 19-28. Note: the link here is the abstract, not the full article.
- Dean Burnett, The Happy Brain – The Science of Where Happiness Comes From, and Why, 2018, Guardian Faber, London. Website Dr Dean Burnett, click here.
- Menatti and A. Casado da Rocha, Landscape and Health: Connecting Psychology, Aesthetics, and Philosophy through the Concept of Affordance, Frontiers in Psychology, 2016
- Hunziker, T. Hartig, M. Buchecker, Space and Place – Two Aspects of the Human-landscape Relationship, pages 47-62, published in A Changing World: Challenges for Landscape Research, F. Kienast, O. Wildi, S. Ghosh (eds.), Springer, 2007
- Gränslandet, website
Scandinavia in winter ís Winter Wonderland. And especially now is a great time to go, more sunlight and still snow. You’ll find many travel agents, websites and tour operators that offer adventure holidays and trips in the Nordic Countries. For instance, take a look at these outdoor activities specialists (winter and summer, and in between):