Lindsay J. McCunn Ph.D


Lost and Found: Sense of Place on the Prairies

Can one forget what home feels like?

Posted Aug 31, 2012

Lindsay McCunn
Source: Lindsay McCunn

We all know that taking a vacation can have a psychological impact. People generally go on holiday to clear their minds, experience a new setting, and reset mental loops. For me, the psychological outcome of two weeks off was the resurfacing of a sense of place I didn’t think I had.

While driving through the Rocky Mountains, into the foothills and prairie lands of Alberta, Canada, I was reminded of the nuances of Saskatchewan, where I grew up. Although our road trip did not include a stop in that province, the landscape of Alberta; the accent with which people spoke; the architecture of the small towns; and the familiar sounds of the weather served as enough stimulus for me to recall a dim sense of home.

This caught me off guard because despite spending half my life in Saskatchewan, I don’t consider it my ‘home’. “Bittersweet” is the word that comes to mind when I think of the years I lived there. But, taken together, my feelings fit the definition of sense of place – a concept studied in several of the social and environmental sciences, and particularly in environmental psychology. An individual’s sense of place is based on cognitive, affective, and conative relations with environments such as homes, communities, and cities. In other words, you might feel a sense of place toward a physical setting if you have an emotional, rational, symbolic, or spiritual relationship with that space (e.g., a local coffee shop; a city you travelled to in your teens; or your childhood room).  

That people form a positive bond to places in which they feel comfort and belonging seems obvious, I know. Studies have outlined three sub-dimensions of sense of place: place attachment, place identity, and place dependence. This means there are three kinds of bonding that can occur to a place, which is why I found it so interesting that I could forget such a strong sensation. A quick search of the environmental psychological literature does not pinpoint research on forgetting sense of place, once established. However, the notion of “place loss” comes up in the PsycINFO database. This occurs when an individual experiences a disruption of place. Might forgetting one’s sense of place be a type of place loss? Perhaps a form that is less traumatic than the place loss experienced by immigrants or refugees, for example.

As for the three sub-dimensions of sense of place, I understood that I held onto some degree of place attachment the moment the landscape turned from jagged peaks and distant hills to flat, golden earth. I felt like I had never left. This affective sense of connection and belonging to the environment was certainly dominant. I also became aware of the amount of place identity I have toward the prairies. I realize that patterns of my conscious and unconscious ideas, beliefs, preferences, feelings, values, goals, and behavioural tendencies formed based on attributes of that environment. Of course, I always knew numerous identity-forming experiences happened while I lived there – but I didn’t think where they happened mattered so much in relation to my larger self-concept. Maybe this is because I don’t feel much place dependence toward the setting (did I mention that it is possible to feel the three components of sense of place distinctly? No wonder it is such popular topic of research!)

So, I suppose my vacation was like a road trip through an environmental psychology textbook. It will take more investigation and introspection to understand how and why a sense of place might be forgotten. I guess you can’t really get away from work as a psychologist – the subject is all around, and inside out.

About the Author

Lindsay J. McCunn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in environmental psychology at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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