Human reactions weighed in environmental context
Human behaviour and its relationship with the environment has long since came into the scrutiny psychological studies with a numerous instances where behavioural and physiological responses are studied in different environments. However, the definition of environment itself has come to attach itself with psychological precepts giving new meanings to the term (work environment, cityscape, crowded environment, etc.). For the purposes of this essay, however, we will consider environment in its purely physiological sense with known attributes like temperature, pressure, spatial dimensions, etc. to throw light on the various factors that influence human behaviour. The video footage I have chosen for this purpose depicts a pleasant evening in the streets of Madrid where a female photographer chooses different subjects for her work that include the open spaces, the docks and more importantly, the interactions between the evening strollers in the city along with the cultural context of music, dance and showmanship.
In this sense, the statement that ‘Humans merely react to environmental context’ is not entirely true as behavioural analysts have long since proved that environmental stimulus is only partly responsible for the way human’s react in any given situation. Physiologically speaking, chemoreception plays as great a role in reaction to stimulus as any other sensory input. And chemoreception itself is attached to factors like behaviour, memory, hormone threshold, etc. So it is immature to consider that humans merely react to environmental context as each person attaches different meanings to different kinds of environment. For example, most people in modern civilization think of natural landscapes as soothing or pleasant places, heights and cliffs as physically exciting or even exalting and concrete environments of the cities as constricting or stressful even when they are spacious. Does this mean that our sensory perception exceeds the space around our physical body? Surely not.
Habituation to different environmental conditions as can be seen in modern urban society causes a person to be less aware to the environmental context. Studies conducted in the field of habituation have proved that repetitive environmental stimulus received while performing a serious mental action like reading causes a person to lose awareness of that stimulus eventually. Urban residents used to heavily populated streets and other populated areas tend to be less bothered by crowds than a person who lives in the countryside. And interestingly enough, prolonged exposure to urban environment conditions a country dweller to adapt successfully. Many such studies suggest that humans condition themselves to lose awareness to several environment stimuli, making their reactions more relevant to the conditioning an individual has received than the environmental conditions (Pavlov, 1960).
That brings us to the question as to what exactly humans react to in different environmental contexts. And the question can be answered by another question. What do humans look for in an environmental context? As a species that has put mind over matter, there is no reason not to assume that humans look for reflections of themselves in any environmental context, namely feelings they can connect to, memories that please and ideas they can communicate. Freud had put it more astutely, saying every member of humankind feels small and helpless against the forces of nature, pre-eminently death (Freud, 1914). The thought of death, which invariably enters one’s mind through the awareness of nature, wounds the individual’s sense of narcissism. Could this be the reason that environmental context has faded in meaning from human mind, giving way for habituation, sensitization and conditioning? (Flieschman, 1990)
Experiments conducted in the field of sensory deprivation have noted results of the subjects hallucinating sound and visual images despite the nothingness in the environment where the experiments are conducted (Gibby et al. 1960). More recently, experimenters attempted to change the emotional atmosphere while conducting studies that included aspects like subject’s attitudes, knowledge and expectations and the results were evidently more significant. In the context of sensory deprivation, subjects hallucinate visions or sounds for reasons as simple as wanting to identify with the environment in some way or the other.
Recent discussions on urban planning and the need for open spaces suggest that humans prefer more natural environments for their restorative effects and at the same time, also enjoy the vibrancy and energy of populated cities (van der Berg et al. 2007). Several urban planning manifests have taken care to include open spaces where citizens can relax in a collective open environment. These studies probably throw light on our question as to what humans ‘look for’ in their environments. The restorative effects of nature, although widely discussed, have never conclusively proved that natural environment alone is a cure for all ills. There seems to a link missing and the link is human company itself. Humans prefer the company of humans any day and a natural environment can be debated to have, but a conditioned effect of relaxation from stress and anxiety at some level. To quote Freud again, this behaviour can be explained by a human’s essential need to heal the wounds inflicted by the awareness of time and death upon our own narcissistic feelings (Freud 1914). Freud said that humans bond together in collective narcissistic excitement and although this statement of his proved to be a sort of omen for World War II and had taken any number of meanings since then, it still stands true in the basic sense that humans bond with humans more than their immediate surroundings in an effort to last in that space even after they have gone.
The fact that humans seek outdoors as pleasant restorative environments is almost as self-explanatory as that they find concrete, glass and steel buildings, work environments and airports, etc. as stress inducing. ‘The rush’ that one feels while dealing with radical natural spaces is as much a result of cultural conditioning as ‘the low’ that one feels walking home from work in a crowded city street. Awareness to heat and cold, pressure, movement and other factors that contribute to an environment fit into cognitive behavioural patterns of each individual differently based on their personal experiences, social and cultural conditioning.
This video titled, Art Soiree – Moments in Spain by Alyona Vogelmann depicts street life on a pleasant Madrid evening through the eyes of a female photographer. From the colours to architecture to breeze and sea, the environmental aspects of the video are as profound as the cultural interactions between the people who are relaxing outdoors. There are musicians, dancers and exhibitionists on the street as well who contribute to the said environment. The video consists of two segments. The first one starts with an over-the-shoulder shot of the photographer walking in the street, picking up various subjects as she progresses. In the second segment, she is giving an interview, talking about her various inspirations and the nature of her work. The interview gives us a picture of why the photographer chose the subjects that she chose where we learn that although the photographer’s foray into art begun with impressionist style paintings, the new medium of photography led her to concentrate on human interactions rather than landscapes and European architecture that impressionists used to concentrate on. The interview gives us an insight into what subjects upcoming artists who are experimenting with different mediums tend to concentrate on.
( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61v3uUHy49M )
The video starts with the photographer getting off a boat at the docks. She takes a few pictures of the scenery before venturing into the street. We can see that the photographer’s focus automatically goes to the people on the street, the moments they share and the emotional value of the environment coupled with its cultural contribution. Likewise, we can see that the people are mostly clustered in groups, enjoying the weather while having a pleasant time. This aspect of the video clearly reflects on this essay’s view point of social conditioning leading to environmental perception. Since the time spent in an urban cultural district is filled with vibrancy and energy of communication between humans, the association between the behavioural pattern of relaxation and pleasant outdoor weather (where there is enough space for people to meet and watch other relaxed people) is quite conclusive (van der Berg et al 2002).
In the video, one can also note that the subjects the photographer chooses are also aware of being watched or photographed. For example, in the starting part of the video (40th sec), an elderly couple passes by the photographer and though the photographer’s focus is not directed at them, the husband’s body language suggests awareness of being watched. In such instances, it is natural for two strangers on the street to start a conversation (not shown in video) which in turn suggests that humans are less aware of the relaxing environment and more aware of social cues.
In the latter part of the video, where the photographer is being interviewed, she notes (as is apparent from the video itself) that her focus is often concentrated on human interactions in the moment. This statement is diminutive in understanding cultural representations of environment itself, where humans feel the need to mix art, expression and environment in order to understand it better. As the video progresses, we can also see a hip hop dancer who seemingly is performing for nobody, but it is not hard to imagine why he would do it in a crowded street. Similarly, the musicians who perform on the street also add to the ambience and to the idea of outdoor relaxation itself.
On a conclusion, we could say that while humans do receive sensory inputs from the environment and react to it, the reactions are exemplified through the cultural and social conditioning received and are very often expressed through human to human interactions, communication and art. The cultural units called memes also play a large role in doing that. Modern research suggests that new understandings will automatically be self-organised in the mind using existing meme clusters. For example, in the first second that we look at a new landscape, we get a curious, unknowledgeable feel. But in the next second, our focus takes in the clouds, streams, mountains and trees as attributes for the available meme cluster in the mind (Richards, 2001). This perceptual and even creative awareness of environment is neither good nor bad at the surface level. It seems to me though, that more awareness to environment could result in better lifestyles and life choices. After all, man is as much physical as he is intellectual and conversing with the environment and not just enjoying it should result in a better quality of life and make us more open and accepting to the law of nature.
Pavlov, I.P. (1927/1960). Conditional Reflexes. New York: Dover Publications. Print.
Fleischman, P.R. (1990). The Experience of Impermanence. Vipassana Research Institute. Print.
Gibby, R., Adams, H., Carrera. R. (1960). Therapeutic Changes in Psychiatric Patients Following Partial Sensory Deprivation. Archives of General Psychiatry 3, 57.
van den Berg, A. E., Hartig, T. Staats, H. (2007). Preference for Nature in Urbanized Societies: Stress, Restoration, and the Pursuit of Sustainability, Journal of Social Issues 63, 79-96.
van den Berg, A. E., Koole, L. S., van der Wulp, N. Y. (2003). Environmental preference and restoration: (How) are they related? Journal of Environmental Psychology 23, 135–146.
Richards, R. (2001). A new aesthetic for environmental awareness: Chaos theory, the beauty of nature, and our broader humanistic identity. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Retrieved October 21, 2011 from http://jhp.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/41/2/59
Vogelmann, A. (2011) Art Soiree – Moments in Spain. Retrieved October 18, 2011 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61v3uUHy49M