Landform – Contemplative Landscape Features Series

One of the core questions in our quest for making landscapes more contemplative have been identifying what actually makes a space contemplative or not. Having discussed the importance of long-distance views in an earlier post (click here), today, we turn to a characteristic under the label ‘landform’ in defining a contemplativeness of landscape. So what hides under this category? 

In a way, we can say we continue looking out into the distance, as was true in the first category we introduced. The landform category is based on contemplative features such as smoothness of the ground and manipulation of the skyline (through opening and closings of views, as well as through introducing some specific elements of the skyline) to stimulate looking up to the sky. This suggests that the subtle hills and mounds and diversified skyline would be the most desired for contemplation, thus flat or rugged landforms are expected to be weaker in the classification of their contemplativeness. 

Since there are no sharp edges or geometric figures in the natural world, smooth shapes remind us of the structures created by nature. Not only does mimicking nature in designed landscapes satisfy our need to reconnect with nature, but it is also considered the highest masterpiece of design:

[…] Growth of the vision and contemplation of nature enables him [a designer] to rise towards a metaphysical view of the world and to form free abstract structures which surpass schematic intention and achieve a new naturalness of the work. Then he creates a work … that is the image of God’s work (Klee, 1923, p. 17). 

Forms inspired by nature are very familiar to us psychologically as we all come from nature, and are marked with bio-preference, namely biophilia. In other words, we all love nature on a deep psychological level. Environments rich in natural views and imagery reduce our stress, enhance focus and concentration, and have restorative benefits as proven in research by environmental psychologists (James, 1892, 1984; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). Not only does actual contact with nature count, but even contact with different types of representations of it, such as posters, window views or nature-like sculptures, are sufficient to induce the biophilia effect (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1995). 

Singapore Botanic Garden

Having said that, though, “too much of nature” is not preferred. Places that are too wild or without identity will not make us feel safe. We have evolved in such a way that we don’t feel comfortable in wilderness untouched by human hands. Our evolution made us adapt to spaces where the wilderness is under control, moderated and maintained, similar to natural reserves, parks, and urban gardens. Research on landscape preference has shown that people prefer scenes with ‘tamed nature’ over ‘wild nature’’, where human intervention such as mown grass, boardwalks, and bridges are present (Kaplan et al., 1998). We also have a preference for “smooth ground” with an undulating, moundy form. Hermann, in his description of the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm (see image below) as the example of the most contemplative landscape design, seems to confirm this statement. He describes the soothing and peaceful character provided by leveling and smoothing over the ground, creating a large clearing with an elevated heart of the cemetery called Meditation Grove:

The ground here is a continuous blanket of surprisingly lush green lawn (Hermann, 2005, p. 56). 

Another interesting design strategy that purportedly triggers the contemplative response is connected with looking at the sky and its vastness, due to its “coolness and distant serenity” (Zelanski & Fisher, 1996, p. 236). In every outdoor space, the sky is the ceiling and the atmosphere of Earth is the huge dome of every landscape. Looking towards the sky delivers the longest view and a feeling of vastness. This is why looking up to the sky, watching the sunset or moving clouds, and observation of stars at night has been connected to contemplation. 

While the sky itself is not an element that can be designed, the designer can certainly use some particular tricks to stimulate the visitor to look up at the skyline (Hermann, 2005). The viewer can be stimulated to look up at the sky by managing the level of the point of view. If focal-designed elements are located above the head of the viewer, they will usually look up automatically. The easiest way to change the point of view is to sit down, then while looking around we see much less sky, and much more ground, and if the designed elements and structure is leading our attention up, we will then look up (such as benches). Also, manipulating the skyline by inserting towering elements as opposed to a flat skyline is one strategy to make us look up. The design does not have to necessarily make us raise our heads in a large or small motion, what matters is managing the attention. It can be achieved by designing a mirror of still water in which the sky reflects (Hermann, 2005; Hou, 2015). This strategy is also connected to a strong archetype of water, and can be achieved in the designed landscape by implementing equipment that makes us sit back or lay with our eyes up towards the sky. Another trick is introducing hills, mounds and a viewpoint to achieve this particular effect. 

To show a clear example of how this works in practice, let us leave you with the final image straight from the Teletubbies. The landscape with smooth undulating landform and mounds has a ‘safe haven’ sort of air about it, with calming effects for children… and adults alike.

Based on Olszewska, A. (2016) “Contemplative Values of Urban Parks and Gardens Applying Neuroscience to Landscape Architecture”, PhD thesis, University of Porto, Portugal, with some parts quoted verbatim.

Other references:

Hermann, H. (2005). On the transcendent in landscapes of contemplation. In Contemporary Landscapes of Contemplation. Krinke, R. (Ed). 36-72.

Hou, R. (2015, January). From Beijing to Washington—A Contemplation in the Concept of Municipal Planning. In Symposium on Chinese Historical Geography (pp. 61- 82). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

James, W. (1892). A plea for psychology as a'natural science'. The Philosophical Review, 1(2), 146-153.

Kaplan, S., & Kaplan, R. (1982). Cognition and Environment: Functioning in an Uncertain World.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: T oward an integrative framework. Journal of environmental psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

Kaplan, R., Kaplan, S., & Ryan, R. (1998).With people in mind: Design and management of everyday nature. Washington DC: Island Press.

Klee, P. (1923). Ways of Studying Nature, Lecture at the Bauhaus. New York, Roizzoli, 984, pp. 17-18

Zelanski, P. & Fisher, M. P. (1996). Design Principles & Problems. Brace College: New York. 

Images: 

  • Toronto Skyline (2010),  Photo by: Nicola Betts, Source: www.asla.org
  • Singapore Botanic Gardens 
  • Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm (Landscape Architecture Works, Landezine)  
  • Teletubbies (source: www.wikia.com)

 

by Kehinde Wiley© Kehinde Wiley

Barack Obama’s portrait is very green

Isn’t it interesting how an artist’s choice to place A LOT of greenery on a president’s portrait can turn into an intense, not only artistic, but also cultural, political, ideological, racial and environmental debate?

We cannot deny that this portrait also got our attention exactly because of that beautiful background the artist, Kehinde Wiley chose to paint the official portrait of Barack Obama. The picture depicts the 44th president sitting on a chair against a backdrop of green foliage that appears to somehow take over the painting. Amongst the green leaves we also see some symbolic flowers like chrysanthemums, an official flower of Chicago, jasmine for Hawaii and some African blue lilies to depict Obama’s heritage.

The painter further explained:
"In a very symbolic way what I'm doing is charting his path on Earth through those plants that sort of weave their way. There is a fight going on between him and the foreground and then the plants that are sort of trying to announce themselves underneath his feet. Who gets to be the star of the show? The story or the man who inhabits that story? It's all chance-driven."

Going beyond the simplicity of liking or disliking the portrait, we cannot deny the fact that it is a bold and unusual choice. But perhaps thanks to this overload of greenery it will be the most contemplative painting amongst the others in the presidential gallery at the Smithsonian where it will hang? We have a feeling it just very much might be so…

#neurolandscape #contemplativeart #barackobama #kehindewiley #thesmithsonian 

gale

Women and Girls in Science Day 2018

11 February is UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. While girls have exactly the same potential to be scientists, researchers, and influencers as boys, somehow our societal norms are still not living up to that natural, full potential half of the world’s population. Initiatives like UN’s International Days are still necessary and a great tool to show young girls and women that science and research is, in fact,  as cool as anything else the social media and the society is suggesting as ‘cooler’.

That said, let us introduce you to an inspiring woman, researcher (soon to become PhD), author, entrepreneur and an expert in the field of Landscape Design and Mental Health, Gayle Souter-Brown, who we got to know recently.

We invite you to listen to an interview she gave for Radio New Zeland about the healing potential of landscapes. Tons of positive energy, hope for the future, practical solutions for landscape design and heaps of knowledge are just some things you can expect from this recording. Here is to more passionate, talented, hardworking women in science!

Interview link: https://goo.gl/CD4Nk7

river-urban

Ask the Neuroscientist – an interview with Dr. Nicolas Escoffier

Taking the advantage of having a neuroscience expert on our team, we sat down with our very own Dr. Nicolas Escoffier to talk about mental health, research and of course, our most enigmatic organ – the brain.

How can neuroscience help to answer questions about our living environment and to understand more about our relationship with our surroundings, above all, nature?

Neuroscience allows to peer inside the brain to study the effect our environment has on us. Of course, there are other, more traditional approaches to investigate these effects, but they have their drawbacks. Such an approach is directly asking people about how they feel while in nature. This has limitations however, because nature might have positive effects we are not conscious of, and that we wouldn’t be able to report. For instance, a recent study has showed that the exposure to nature decreases stress to a greater degree than people expect or realise. Using neuroscience to look at the brain is helpful here because it lets us bypass individual awareness to examine the direct physiological effects. This can highlight positive effect that people do not realise are there. Furthermore, it allows us to understand how the physiological effects lead to reduced stress or enhanced feeling of wellbeing, by looking are which brain regions and brain functions are the most affected by the environment.

Can neuroscience really help measure emotions that people have towards some stimuli, or also other things?

It is possible to use neuroscience tools to measure emotional responses to outside events and environments. There are many ways to approach emotions, the most straightforward is to look at how intense an emotional reaction is, and whether its tone is positive or negative. Neuroscience methods and electroencephalography (EEG) in particular have been used successfully to detect the intensity of a felt emotion. Researchers measure emotional arousal, which reflects how intense the physiological and cortical reactions to an emotional event is. Some studies have reported measuring emotional tone using neuroscience tools, but this is much more challenging and might not be always reliable. This is an instance where asking people to report their emotions would help to increase the confidence in the measurement.

Why, in our opinion, the issue of mental health is gaining so much more importance in the recent years?

You would have to ask a mental health professional for a more informed opinion, I’ll just share mine here. For a long time, there has been many barriers to addressing mental health issues. Until recently, health professionals had very few tools to tackle mental health issues. When new mental health therapies became available, people were not aware of what mental health was, and didn’t know that the issues they experienced could be addressed. Also, there was traditionally a stigma attached to mental health, and people were reticent to seek help because they risked suffering a social stigma and being labelled as “crazy”. As a consequence, it was unclear how widespread mental health issues were in the general population because few people were seeking help. With increasing awareness of these issues, and greater scrutiny of their personal and economic impact, there has been an increasing focus on addressing mental health. There is still a need to develop novel mental health tools however, and the focus has been on health interventions that are efficient and cost-effective.

Research is a big aspect of our work here at NeuroLandscape and it has its challenges. For instance, the fact that each person is different, we have different personalities, system of beliefs and we perceive the world in different ways. How can we be sure that we can extrapolate the results from experiment to all generation if we examined only say 30 participants?

This is one of the greatest challenges in research. Different people will respond in many different ways to their environment, whether in the lab or in the real world. As a first step, research can only examine how a group of people on average respond. While it is possible to get an idea for that general trend, there is also great individual variability associated with it. An important step in the research is then to evaluate that variability, and to make sure that we examine a big enough group of participants. As the group size increases, individual variability has a reduced impact, and a better estimate of the typical response can be reached.
As a second step these differences can be of interest of course. Different groups of people might respond differently based on their background or personality, and it can be interesting to examine how these different backgrounds shape their response. In health, this paves the way for personalised interventions that use the most efficient therapy for a person of a given background.

 

Going more into detail in research, which equipment is the best to measure passive exposure to landscapes? What are the main limitations?
- fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
- EEG (Electrophotography)
- PET (Positron-emission tomography)
- ERP (Event-related potential) 

Briefly, to assess the effect of exposure to real landscape you need to be able to record in the field. This excludes techniques such as fMRI or PET that involve equipment that can only be installed indoors. The best choice for such settings are techniques that are portable such as EEG, and ERP measures. These are recorded with the same equipment, and they involve measuring brain response using electrodes placed on the scalp. If you are not interested in recording brain response in the field, but instead you are interested in examining the response to images of landscape, all these techniques can be used. This is because this can be done indoors using images projected on a screen or in virtual reality goggles for instance.
All these techniques then have their own advantages and drawback. For instance, fMRI and PET, can record the whole brain in high resolution, which allow to localise responses in the brain with high spatial accuracy, typically down to a few millimeters. They are very slow however and can only make a measure every 2 second at their fastest. This makes it almost impossible to examine the precise shape and timing of brain response. In addition, the equipment for these techniques is more expensive and so is running an experiment. On the other hand, the equipment used for EEG, and ERP can record responses every few milliseconds, making it easier to examine the brain response timing and shape. They can, however, only record responses at the scalp, so the localization of the responses is very coarse. For instance, you would only be able to tell whether a response originated from the front, centre, or back of the brain, and from the left or the right side. Furthermore, these techniques cannot record the response of neurons that are located deep in the brain, such as those that process emotions. All these neuroimaging techniques have further trade-offs, and they must be selected with great care based on the goals, the setting, and the budget.

What do you need to be careful with the most when designing the neuroscience experiment and when interpreting the results of neuroscience experiments? Are they really exciting as they seem?

Neuroscience experiments have increased our understanding of how the brain works to a great extent. We can now study how brain functioning can predict better health and well-being. Despite the benefit they bring, they are challenging to conduct, and many aspects must be taken care of to ensure that the results follow gold standards. Experiments that do not follow these standards will lead to outcomes that don’t accurately represent what’s happening in the real world. There are many features to take care of, but let me focus on two main ones here. 

First, it is important to verify that the experiment is designed to really answer the questions one wants to examine. Sometimes an experiment will compare the difference between two groups, for example between people who exercise and people who don’t, and find a difference in health outcomes. But it is important to check than no other difference between the groups can explain the results. For instance, if the groups that exercise turns out to be younger in age, then the health benefits might be due to their younger age, and exercising might not help at all. Of course, we know that exercise enhances health, but we only know that because prior studies ensured that results were not influenced by other parameters such as age. Researchers guaranteed that by testing people from the same age group for instance.

A second important aspect is to make sure that a large enough group of participants is tested. This matters because the larger the group, the more likely the results will apply to everyone. Imagine an extreme case where you would only test two people. For instance, you test someone who exercises regularly, but who has other issues that deteriorate his or her health, with someone who does not exercise but has been gifted with good health. Based on these two people, you would conclude exercising deteriorates health! This conclusion would be based on random occurrences, and would not reflect the real world. To avoid these issues, studies must have a high enough number of participants whose results are averaged together. This guarantees that random occurrences have only a small influence on the results, and that the study outcome is close to what can be found in the whole of the general population. These are just two of many other aspects that are important to consider.

 

How would you assess the depth of the current knowledge about the human brain? Is it a field that is well-examined, or rather in its infancy? Where do you see neuroscience going in the future?

I would say we have made great progress in the past 50 years, with more advanced techniques available to understand the basic mechanisms involved in the information processing the brain does. There is still so much ahead of us because the brain is incredibly complex. No one knows what the future will look like, but more recent advances have brought new insights by examining how the various brain regions, and the neurons in them, communicate and connect to form networks. The research suggests that these networks undergird the brain functions, and the future will likely see an increased focus on understanding how these networks store information, how they interact, and how changes in their integrity explain changes in behaviour and health and wellbeing.

And how do you personally look after your mental health, given your knowledge of the brain, and what advice do you have for the average person?

I personally like to spend time in nature, in conversations with friends, and reading, meditating and practicing martial arts.  And of course, if I had any issue I couldn’t cope with I would seek the help of a mental health professional. If you were to only do one thing to take care of your brain in daily life, it should probably be physical exercise. It’s great for mood and stimulates neural cell growth and helps with memory and cognition. Beyond that, any cognitively challenging activity will work to train your brain functions, such as taking up a new hobby, or having an interesting and intellectually-engaging work. It is also better if these activities are social and involve contact and exchange with other people. In addition, research indicates that activities that train awareness such as mindfulness practices are also good. Finally, mounting evidence suggests that exposure to nature is beneficial, so it might be even better when all these activities are performed outdoors in green environments.

Nicolas Escoffier is a mind and brain researcher who holds a Ph.D. from the National University of Singapore. His research has focused on the relationship between our minds and our sensory and social environment, using techniques from experimental psychology, brain imaging and data science. He also studies the mind from the “inside”, and has trained in contemplative practices for over a decade. He is a consultant on behaviour and neuroscience projects, focusing on best practices for ideation, design, project management, and analytics.