Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Power of Place

It seems obvious that our surroundings affect us, and yet it is funny how often we neglect to acknowledge that. The Power of Place, by Winifred Gallagher, very carefully looks at a wide range of environments, from the womb to the weather, and investigates how each one changes us – quite literally, in the case of the womb, since the nutrients and hormones we get in that environment shape us both physically and mentally. The biology is interesting, but as a spatial learner, I found the rest of the book more intriguing.

She starts with the seasons and looks at how the longer nights of winter affect people and, by extension, how being inside affects people. Indoor living has distanced people from the natural world, and we have come to believe that it doesn't matter, that seasons are just changing decorations outside our doors. But Gallagher gathers evidence that the seasons do matter, at least in temperate (and especially polar) zones, that people are still, in spite of all our sophistication, hard-wired to hibernate - or at least slow down - in the winter and speed up in the summer; luckily, most of us can ignore this because the instinct is fairly subtle, but for some people, it can be debilitating. She notes that in Alaska, the natives who stick to the traditional seasonal rhythms (sleeping a lot in the winter, working a lot in the summer) have almost no depression, while those who follow the white 8-to-5 rhythm have just as much trouble with depression as whites do. (Some of this is due to the fact that people on urban schedules get outside in the sun very little in the winter.)

One thing that has distanced people from the outdoors is the movement to cities; not only is nature harder to get to in cities, there are more people around, which brings its own pressures on creatures adapted to live in small family groups - although Gallagher makes it clear that the scientists are by no means unanimous on whether or not people can successfully adapt to the high population density. She has also turned up some intriguing evidence that environmental cues support addictions of various types, because the cues trigger the need for the substance. She looks at drug use and how hard it is to stay clean if the drug user returns to the same neighborhood, how the familiarity of the location of drug use increases tolerance of the drug. But the concept also explains more mundane issues, like how much trouble dieters have in keeping weight off, how hard it is to stop smoking or drinking, how often prisoners released from jail end up back there; even something as innocuous as empty-nest syndrome makes more sense when you realize all the cues the daily environment holds about how you should behave and what should happen next.

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