Biophilia and Gaia: Two Hypotheses for an Affective Ecology

Mindfulness meditation is a psychological practice with its roots in the spiritual traditions of Buddhism (Siegel, 2007), and from which various methods used in stress reduction (Kabat Zinn; 2005) and diverse psychological therapies have been derived (for a recent review, see Horowitz, 2010). In its essential form, mindfulness meditation offers the opportunity to experience suspended individual moments in time from the multiple auditory and visual stimuli received and to enter into relationship with one’s interior space (Freire, 2007). Mindfulness meditation requires the practitioner to empty his/her mind of the flow of thoughts that tend to activate directed attention, creating in this way the right conditions such that open attention can manifest (Pensa 2002).
Kaplan retains that a person, even with modest training in meditation, could obtain great benefits in his/her capacity to regenerate directed attention from practicing mediation, even if the environmental context has little or no regenerative properties (Kaplan 2001). In some way, mindfulness meditation may have a substitutive role to that of fascination of the natural world.
Kaplan’s hypothesis (known as the 6th hypothesis) opens up new perspectives: if fascination of Gaia regenerates directed attention, establishing in this way a point of contact with the human psyche, symmetrically the human psyche, via mindfulness meditation could establish a point of contact with Gaia, or at least with some of her epiphanies. Indeed, wilderness Gaia and mindfulness meditation require the human subject to “let go” of directed attention and to predispose oneself to open attention.

Active Silence Training
On these bases, Dinajara Doju Freire, Maria Ferrando and I developed Active Silence Training (AST), an educational scheme designed specifically for primary school children (Barbiero et al 2007b). The AST is constituted of fascinating games that aim to stimulate biophilia in children, enhancing properties of both attention and empathy. For this reason, the AST is divided into two modules: Cooperative Play (Bello, Bo & Ferrando 2002) and Mindful Silence (Freire, 2007). The Cooperative Play module is constituted of games that encourage the children to cooperative between themselves in order to stimulate their sense of empathy (Jelfs, 1982; Bonino, 1987). The Mindful Silence module is constituted of games that introduce mindfulness meditation to the children, thus stimulating their faculty of attention (Kaplan 2001; MacLean et al. 2010).

Experimental data
To enable biophilia to flourish in each child, we need to stimulate his attention and his sense of empathy. The AST is the instrument that we have created to attain this objective in children that pass a large part of their time in urban environments with poor regenerative powers. Although the AST was performed in many primary schools in North and Central Italy, all the experimental observations reported here were taken at the Istituto San Giovanni Bosco delle Figlie di Maria Ausiliatrice, a primary school in Aosta (Italy), in order to present a socially homogenous group of children and to follow them over the course of their five primary school years.
Both physiological and psychological parameters were taken into consideration in the study. Regarding the former, heart rate and arterial blood pressure were assessed – indicators of the state of relax of the children (Barnes et al. 2004; Black, Milam & Sussman 2009), and for the latter, the Continuous Performance Test (CPT, Cornoldi, 1996) was primarily used to evaluate the regenerative capacities of attention in the children. This version of the CPT is a paper and pencil test that measures sustained attention. The subject is required to spot a triplet of the same repeated letter within a very long string of letters. The CPT is a brief and conceptually simple test, but nevertheless somewhat tiring for primary school children. It is a validated measure of sustained attention (see e.g. Corkun 2008). The CPT measures sustained-directed attention as well as the capacity to inhibit or block out other stimuli. In our CPT, a triplet of letters was presented to the subjects for three test-trials whereby the order in which the same letters appear changes for each trial as does the size of the letters and the spacing between them. No cognitive function is involved whilst performing the test as the order of the letter string is casual and without sense; however, the subject is required to maintain directed attention. The CPT allows us to measure four variables: the number of correct replies, the number of incorrect replies, the number of times no reply is given, and the time to complete the test. In this way we have been able to assess to what extent and after how much time children are able to regenerate directed attention by means of active silence (Barbiero et al. 2007b).

In a first phase, we compared the regenerative capacity of the AST with that of the children’s habitual recreational break between lessons (playtime); we obtained evidence that the AST is much more efficient than their usual playtime in regenerating attention in the children at school (Barbiero et al. 2007b). Next, we compared the two modules of the AST, the Cooperative Play and the Mindful Silence modules; we discovered that the Cooperative Play module produces immediate but transient regenerative properties of attention, while the practicing of Mindful Silence regenerates directed attention more slowly but the effects are longer-lasting (Berto & Barbiero, manuscript submitted). Finally, we compared the AST in class with the fascination of nature. We took the children on an explorative nature trail within the woods, incorporating story-telling and song such that the children could fully immerge themselves into this environment with absolute serenity. We were not surprised to observe that following this experience of nature their assessed performances of directed attention were comparable or better to those achieved after performing the active silence exercises in the classroom (unpublished data); this result was also confirmed by the outcome of the children’s version of the Perceived Restorativeness Scale (Pasini et al. 2009), a test for assessing how the regenerative potential of an environment is perceived.

Evocative Suggestions
If our observations are confirmed, we can conclude that:
1) Some natural environments are able to stimulate fascination in children in such a way that enables directed attention to rest and regenerate.
2) Biophilia could exert an evolutionistic influence that goes beyond the memory of our past in the savannah (Balling & Falk 1982), affecting both directed attention and concentration. Thus, biophilia could represent a relevant evolutionistic advantage (Barbiero 2010).
3) If the capacity to regenerate depends on certain natural contexts, one might expect that the destruction of the Earth’s wildernesses, in addition to the more obvious serious consequences, would have a detrimental effect upon the ability of our future generations to mentally regenerate in a full and complete manner. In particular, the studies of environmental amnesia come to mind (Kahn, 2007).
4) If, of the various natural contexts, those of intense natural beauty are not other than the epiphany of Gaia, then, in one sense, it is Gaia that regenerates our ability to attend. Thus, the veneration of the ancient populations for Mother Earth (Gimbutas 1989) should not be considered a naїve rite, but as an act of gratitude for that that is the power to regenerate.
5) Finally, I turn to definition of biophilia, «our innate tendency […] in some instances, to affiliate with [life forms] emotionally» (Wilson 2002, p. 134). Wilson uses – and I believe not by chance – the verb “to affiliate”. The etymology of the word “affiliate” is Latin (ad filius) and means “son of”, thus implicitly indicates a relationship with a “mother”. If Gaia is the scientific epiphany of Mother Earth, then Gaia is “mother” and humans are literally her “sons”. It is clear that of all the empathic relationships, that existing between mother and child is one of the most profound and special. What is more, could the mother-child model of an empathic relationship be that that best encapsulates the empathic relationship between Gaia and mankind? Even though there are many scales that measure mother-child empathy, we have not been able to identify one yet that could be used together with the AST, but the investigational road ahead is without doubt promising.


Over recent years, biophilia has more frequently been taken into consideration in studies, hypotheses and practical proposals regarding the designing of human spaces in order to optimise human welfare, performance, etc. (see e.g.: Kellert 2005; Tai et al. 2007; Kellert, Heerwagen, & Mador 2008; Salingaros et al. 2009). Though being a good starting point, biophilia is, however, only a quality of the human mind that requires an adequate relational context and Gaia to be expressed, or, better still, one of her innumerable epiphanies can provide the right partner to enable biophilia to flourish.

Regarding affective ecology, I propose the following food for thought:
1) Biophilia is a collection of learning rules which depend upon the mental faculties, attention and empathy. A Biophilic project should consider i) fascinating environmental contexts to diminish the use of directed attention and favour open attention, and ii) the most appropriate spaces for human interactions to favour empathetic contact between human beings and between human beings and the natural world (Zammit et al. 2010).
2) Fascination is a relational process where man is the passive actor and the various epiphanies of Gaia react directly upon the human psyche. However, fascination is limited by the experience that each person has of the natural world. A biophilic design should dedicate space for manifestations of wilderness Gaia that are compatible with a real experience of wilderness for the user (Kaplan 2001).
3) Open attention can connect the human psyche to wilderness Gaia. A biophilic design should, therefore, provide spaces for retreat and solitude where the perception of the world’s beauty merges with one’s more intimate spirituality (Ouellette, Kaplan & Kaplan, 2005).


Like many conceptual instruments of the life sciences, the biophilia hypothesis and the Gaia hypothesis do not possess the status of ‘theory’ in the strict sense of the word: that is, they do not possess a predictive power derived from their logical-deductive structure. However, many lines of evidence support their real consistence, insomuch as that today the biophilia hypothesis and the Gaia hypothesis together can be considered as a collection of inductive models with great heuristic value for the environmental sciences. In their flexibility, the Gaia and biophilia models conserve all the complexity of the living world (Capra 1996), with networks of connections never completely closed and boundaries never completely defined, as is life (Camino & Barbiero 2005). The Gaia hypothesis and the biophilia hypothesis offer to the scientific community a new way of contemplating the living world, where experimental observation becomes a tool for dialogue between different perspectives (Benessia, Barbiero & Camino 2006) and where a verbal language is favoured that is better adapted for describing the dynamicity of the processes than a nominal language that tends to crystallise in definitions that for their nature are in continual evolution (Dodman, Camino, & Barbiero 2008).
If the ecology is the science of the relationships between living organisms and their environment, the relationships between human beings and the rest of the living world should receive particular attention. Here, affective ecology emerges: the study of the affective and cognitive relationships that human beings establish with the living and non living world. It addresses emotions that become sentiments, and intuitions that become knowledge. Sentiments and knowledge are not juxtaposed, they interchange however and collaborate. Read Nature with an open heart, listen to Nature with a ready mind: this is the correct nourishment for the healthy growth of naturalistic intelligence.


The author wishes to thank Rita Berto for her competences in environmental psychology that permitted the experimental project to be developed. Appreciation also goes to Elena Camino, Elsa Bianco, Maria Ferrando, Dinajara Doju Freire, Laura Porté, Antonella Quaglino and Nadia Borbey, each one of whom has offered a significant contribution to the development of the ideas contained within this article. Much gratitude is owed to the Primary School San Giovanni Bosco delle Figlie di Maria Ausiliatrice in Aosta (Italy) for having hosted the experiments herein presented. Particular thanks go to Stephanie Parsley for the translation and the supervision of the text in English. This work was supported by personal research funds awarded to GB by the University of Valle d’Aosta


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Giuseppe Barbiero, PhD
Università della Valle d’Aosta
Facoltà di Scienze della Formazione
Centro Interuniversitario IRIS, Interdisciplinary Research Institute on Sustainability
Università degli studi di Torino.
Strada Cappuccini 2/a
11100 Aosta, Italy
phone: +39 0165305375