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26. The Potential Influences of Environmental Perception on Human Health

DescriptionThis study provides a comprehensive survey of research and theory concerning the potential influences of environmental perception on health and well-being.
MethodologyThe literature suggests that people generally prefer natural environments to urban environments and believe them to be natural and restorative (e.g. Kaplan, 1983; Walker and Dufield, 1983, Ulrich 1984). This distinction between the natural and urban environments is used by Parson's to re-examine the evolutionary theories of environmental aesthetics expounded by the Kaplans and Ulrich.
  • Parson's concludes that exposure to natural environments can be stress reducing.
  • He supports the evolutionary theory of environmental aesthetics and agrees with Ulrich's approach to environmental research. Ulrich (1983) proposed that the initial response to an environment is one of generalised affect, which can be independent of and primary to cognition.
  • Parson's is sceptical of the view taken by the Kaplans (Kaplan, 1987) who suggest that there is a broad range of involvement of cognitive processes in preference judgement and promotes 'mystery' as the most dominant informational predictor (p5-6). He suggests that a judgement of 'mystery' is likely to be a more deliberate response, exerting its influence on environmental preference after the initial affective reaction has occurred, (if it forms any part of a preference judgement).
  • He speculates that natural environments are not necessarily restorative, but that urban environments are inherently stressful. He argues that if certain environments trigger an immediate affective response and this response is driven by an evolutionary mechanism which responds positively to surroundings which are potentially habitable, then urban environments are uniquely stressful because they lack the icons of a preferred habitat (p16).
  • He makes suggestions for the use of neuropsychological and immunosuppression evidence in environmental research, (e.g. stress hormones and indicators of immunocompetence).
PublishedJournal of Environmental Psychology 11: 1-23.
AuthorsParsons, R.
Publisher Academic Press
Price Subscription c. £71 p.a. (4)
Keywordsenvironmental psychology; environment/stress; environment/behaviour; evolutionary theory/aesthetics; environment/preference; neuropsychology;

A reading of Parson's work reveals potentially exciting avenues of future research. He reviews three areas of research to investigate the notion of 'an evolutionary driven, initial response to environments':

Behaviour Evidence

From his review of behavioural evidence he concludes that human emotional response is, in part at least, evolutionary driven. He refers to various research to show that affective responding is innate. This includes a number of studies with children and cross-cultural studies of the expression and experience of emotions. He refers to studies which reveal support for the preference for 'savannah-like' environments, (Balling and Falk (1982), Orians, (1980), Woodcock, (1984), and Orians and Heerwagen, (in press)

Neuropsychological Evidence

Parson's uses neuropsychological evidence to support suggestions by Zajonc (1980) and Ulrich (1983) that processing of incoming stimuli is initially affective, and that the initial affective reaction influences environmental preferences. From LeDoux (1986) he suggests that the initial response to environmental stimuli is extremely fast, based on little stimulus information, and because it is completely subcortial and centred on the amygdala, the processing is likely to be primarily affective (p12). The amygdala and hippocampus (parts of the limbic system of the brain important for emotional reactions and for comparison of novel and stored stimuli) may have the potential to provide a neuropsychological link between affective responses to environments, physical health, and the supposed restorative value of natural environments (p9) (Henry & Meehan, 1981; Henry, 1982).

Neuroendocrine and CNS immunomodulation.

Parson's refers to previous reviews of research on psychological responses to stressors (Henry 1980; Henry and Stephens, 1977; Henry and Meehan 1981) to discuss the range of responses to different types of stress. He cites evidence that subcortial, limbic brain structures are implicated in the processing of immediate affective responses to environments and that these are also important components of neuro-endocrine influences on immunocompetence (pp.16-17). 


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