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Matthew J. Wichrowski, M.S.W., H.T.R.
Matthew J. Wichrowski M.S.W., H.T.R.

Biophilia: Our Connection to the Natural World

Why is it that we are scared of spiders and snakes while flowers make us smile?

We can gain a lot from nature—there are so many lessons to be learned.

Personally, I love to observe our chickens. My son brought home five chicks from his science class last June. Building the coup and run together was a great experience. The chicks have grown up over the summer and we regularly let them range around the yard.

During the heat of the summer, I came to appreciate the chicken’s patterns of behavior. They explore, grazing on various leaves, seeds, fruits, and insects, and then rest for a while. In the heat of the day they rest under the deck until it cools, then they emerge to forage some more, and eventually make their way back to the coop around dusk. Millions of years of evolution have shown them how to behave in order to fit well in their worlds and survive.

We humans used to spend all of our time surrounded by nature as opposed to the built world we spend so much time in today. Having our day to day survival closely tied to the environment has shaped the way we experience many elements of nature. Even though we left our hunter gatherer lifestyle for a more settled life about 10,000 years ago, we are still tied to our evolutionary past. According to Ness, human genetics has changed only 5% in the past 10,000 years.

Food, shelter, medicine, tools, and all necessities of life came from an intimate knowledge of our environments and the cycles of life within. Meeting our needs in the course of survival has shaped the type of landscape we prefer and how we react to things within it. We are attracted to things that have supported our survival, and become anxious when we are around things that put us at risk for harm.

Biophilia is the concept coined by E.O. Wilson which describes our affiliation and need for the natural world. We smile upon receiving a bouquet of flowers not only because of the emotional sentiment between giver and receiver, but also because flowers remind us of the fruit and seeds that come later. Food is a necessity for life, and over the course of time we often had to struggle to find enough to eat. Our fondness for salt and food high in fat stems from times when those items were scarce, and we consumed as much as we could when it was available. This tendency gets us in trouble these days when these foods are readily available. We like being around water and diverse lush landscapes (but not too lush closed in, or we may not see predators lurking close by), hence the higher prices for water front homes and the increase in the value of homes with attractive landscaping.

Conversely, biophobia is our fear and avoidance of elements of our environment that cause harm, or kill us and eliminate our genes from the gene pool. There is a reason why many people are fearful of snakes, spiders, lions, tigers, and bears as well as the big bad wolf. Some develop full-fledged phobias with little or no direct contact with these elements. One study looked at a comparison between modern day dangers such as guns, knives, frayed electrical wires, and pre-modern dangers such as spiders, snakes, enclosed spaces, and blood. The pre-modern dangers were significantly more resistant to extinction when repeatedly tested. This biologically prepared learning has helped us survive, and it certainly seems that we are pre-wired to avoid certain things, even though these things may be rare in our current world.

Interestingly, our concept of aesthetics is also greatly influenced by our “biophilic” tendencies. The continued popularity of bucolic nature scenes in art supports our liking for certain features in paintings. Some may consider these paintings dull and prefer more modern abstract works, but when a metal abstract sculpture with sharp angles was installed in a major academic medical center where patients with serious illnesses waited, it was eventually taken away because patients complained that it made them feel uncomfortable. Other studies support the stress-reducing effects of nature scenery while abstract scenes either have no significant effect or increase the levels of stress indicators.

The concept of biophilia also extends to the preference for certain landscapes. People from different cultures all over the world tend to prefer open grassland, punctuated by copses of trees, much like the east African savanna where our early hominid ancestors resided. The umbrella shape of the acacia, a common denizen of the savanna, is a favorite the world over. This has influenced the way many of our parks are designed, and the suburban landscape is full of representatives that reflect this tendency. The popularity of the naturalistic style of Capability Brown, the Olmstead Brothers, and their modern counterparts in landscape design support our predispositions in creating a certain style of landscape that we find relaxing and refreshing.

So what can we do to reap the benefits of biophilia?

Enjoy a walk in the park. Get to know the ones in your area. Different parks have different things to enjoy. Sometimes you didn’t even know they were there and can make interesting discoveries. Spring with life re-emerging after a winter’s rest is quite enjoyable. The many greens in the various leaves as they first flush out, and the manner in which they change as they mature, is quite wondrous. The fall colors show the beauty of nature while reminding us to prepare for the winter to come. Come to appreciate the elements of design, or places that strike you. Try and figure out what it is that intrigues you about the setting or why it is so relaxing.

Biophilia Essential Reads

Add some of these elements to the landscape at home. A planter with some herbs or cherry tomatoes is easy to do and fosters some experimentation with healthy eating. Landscape your home so that there is always something in bloom during the season. Fragrant plants excite the senses. Don’t forget to include plants you have fond memories of—the ones you enjoyed with your parents or grandparents as a youngster. Scent is a powerful component in the garden and can transport us back to joyful times in our memory.

A small fountain or larger water feature provides some relaxing sounds and can be home to some wildlife, such as goldfish, turtles, or frogs. Feeding, or just watching these critters go about their lives can be quite interesting and allows us to get lost for a time and feel away, a break in our busy often overstimulated lives.

Take a moment to de-stress on a regular basis. Sometimes stress can build up in our busy lives. It is important to allow our bodies to recover from the many stresses in our ever-changing world and avoid the hazards of chronic stress. Re-awaken the sense of wonder that we delight in as children—but often neglect as we get older—and join the adult world of rush and responsibility.

Lastly, take some time to smell the roses. You will be glad you did.


Kellert, S.R. & Wilson, E.O. (Ed s). (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis . Island Press; Wasington DC.

Falk, J.H. & Balling J.D. (2012). Evolutionary Influence on Landscape Preference. Environment and Behavior, 42 (4) 479-493.

Ulrich, R. (1984) A view through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science. 421-422.

Williams, G.C. & Ness, R.M. (1991). The dawn of Darwinian medicine. Quarterly Review of Biology, 66 (1) 1.

About the Author
Matthew J. Wichrowski, M.S.W., H.T.R.

Matthew J. Wichrowski, M.S.W., H.T.R. has been a horticultural therapy practitioner and researcher at Rusk Institute New York University Langone Medical Center for almost 20 years.

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