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What Is Biophilia?

Humans have always been drawn to, dependent on, and fascinated by the natural world. Biophilia, which literally translates to “love of life,” is the idea that this fascination and communion with nature stem from an innate, biologically-driven need to interact with other forms of life such as animals and plants.

The term is thought to have been coined by the renowned psychologist Erich Fromm, but it was popularized by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson through his 1984 book Biophilia. In it, Wilson proposed that humans’ attraction to nature is genetically predetermined and the result of evolution.

The human appreciation for flowers, he theorized, was due to the fact that for many plant species, flowers signal that fruit (a rich source of nutrients for early humans) would be arriving soon. And human fondness for baby animals suggests that affiliating with animals, and protecting the most vulnerable among them, provided early people with an evolutionary advantage. Researchers are searching for the genes responsible for humans’ love of nature.

If biophilia delivers benefits to humans, then our increased distance and detachment from the natural world, due to urbanization, technological advances, and other factors, could have negative effects on our well-being—not to mention on nature itself.

How Nature Improves Your Well-Being

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Whether or not human love of the natural world is located in our genes, significant evidence suggests that both spending time in nature and interacting with animals can have beneficial effects on both physical and mental health.

Time spent in green space, for instance, has been found to be associated with lowered levels of stress, improved memory, and heightened creativity. Children and adults with disorders such as ADHD or depression have been shown to experience decreased symptoms the more time they spend in natural environments. The benefits of green time may be physical, as well: A 2007 study concluded that a microbe found in soil may improve the body’s immune response.

Animals are regularly used in therapeutic settings, such as in equine-assisted therapy, and owning a pet has long been associated with positive mental health outcomes. Pets also often encourage physical activity, which triggers its own cascade of physical and emotional benefits.

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