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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2017
A Psychological Nature Walk With Peter H. Kahn Jr., PhD
Ashley Garcia, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Walking on a treadmill just isn’t as satisfying as walking outside, says Dr. Peter H. Kahn Jr., who over the last 15 years has been studying two large problems that are radically restructuring human existence: the degradation of nature and the rapid creation of technology.
Dr. Kahn received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, and through studying with Elliot Turiel, his mentor, he began his research on the human relationship with nature. Toward the end of his graduate program, he wondered, “humans have social and moral relationships with other people, but isn’t that also the case with nature?” From that question, he began developmental and cross-cultural research on children’s environmental understandings and values, and eventually began researching urban sustainability. But how did he end up there?
Humans Need Nature Interaction
According to Dr. Kahn, the research literatures shows that interaction with nature can reduce stress, depression, aggression, crime, and ADHD symptoms; and improve immune function, eyesight, and mental health. Nature also increases people’s social connectedness. That’s just for starters. Why does nature work this way? It’s here that Dr. Kahn draws on evolutionary psychology: as a species, we came of age with a rich and diverse natural world, and the need for that nature still lies within us.
In nature, there’s fresh air, nature sounds such as birds, and there’s research that shows that children, and adults, have better executive function and development when exposed to nature. It has been shown to calm the mind and make people more alert. “I think part of what interacting with nature, embeddedness in nature, does is allow the mind to develop in a calmer and more balanced way,” Dr. Kahn says.
Parents are sometimes concerned about their children getting hurt in nature. That has some merit, Dr. Kahn says, but the risks are seldom as high as parents think they are. It’s usually riskier for a child to be a passenger in a car than it is to play outside. He believes getting a little banged up in nature is healthy for children’s development. They learn to evaluate risks, such as how high to climb in a tree. He says, “Children are constructing knowledge of spatial relations and making their own decisions about risk, and sometimes there are consequences, which is a marvelous thing.”
Is Technology a Substitute for Nature?
At the University of Washington, Dr. Kahn has studied the psychological effects of interacting with what he calls technological nature: technologies that in various ways mediate, simulate, or augment the natural world. In one study, for example, he investigated whether a technological nature window could help people recover from stress in an office setting in the same way as nature that was not augmented. To do this, there were three separate conditions: (a) people could look out a window and see the normal view of green space, water, and sky; (b) the window, covered by a plasma display, showed in real-time what was in effect the same nature view; and (c) the window was completely covered and thus became a blank wall.
“We found that there was greater recovery in the actual window condition compared to the blank wall condition,” Dr. Kahn says, showing that nature is restorative and good for stress reduction. Then on the critical experimental condition, it was found that stress recovery for the technological nature window did not differ from the blank wall. Moreover, although people looked at the technological nature window just as often as the actual window, there was greater stress recovery when their eyes were on the actual window compared to the technological nature window.
In an ethnographic study at the same university, Dr. Kahn studied the use and appreciation of technological nature windows in staff and faculty who had inside offices. He found that they loved and used these technological windows often. “They provided this mediated access to nature, and that’s important to people because otherwise they’d come into the building in the wintertime when it’s dark and leave when it’s dark,” Dr. Kahn says.
With these two studies, it is clear that nature provides important psychological benefits; and even though technological nature can be beneficial, it is not as good in comparison to actual nature. According to Dr. Kahn, this research can be used to show how important it is that we use the correct benchmarks. “If we create technological substitutes for nature and ask ‘are they effective for promoting human well-being?’ the question is ‘compared to what?’ The answer should not only be compared to nothing, but also compared to interaction with actual nature,” he says.
What Is Environmentally Normal?
Dr. Kahn created the concept of environmental generational amnesia, which he states is the idea that, when children are born, they construct a baseline of what is environmentally normal. The problem with this is that, when children are born in environmentally degraded conditions, which all of us are, they see it as normal and don’t necessarily experience anything as a problem or out of the ordinary.
In a study he conducted while in his first job at the University of Houston, TX, he interviewed inner city children about their understanding of the environment and pollution. At this time, Dr. Kahn states, Houston was perhaps the most polluted city in the United States. While interviewing the children, it was clear that they understood and could articulate what air and water pollution were. When asked if they thought Houston was polluted, they replied that it wasn’t.
These answers from the children show the idea of environmental generational amnesia because, according to Dr. Kahn, this is what is normal to them, so they don’t see it as pollution. They had perhaps never been outside of the city and so were constructing a baseline for what normal air is, even though it was heavily polluted.
He goes on to state that didactic environmental education will not easily correct this problem. “You try to tell children that we have serious environmental problems, and they just don’t see it because of the baseline they have constructed,” Dr. Kahn says. This is also why, even as people recognize climate change is happening, many are apathetic. “One of the reasons for this,” Dr. Kahn says, “is tied to this amnesia thinking that climate change is fairly normal. People need a deep connection with nature and the appreciation of nature in order to value it and then promote a conservation agenda.”
Urban Sustainability and Human Flourishing
Dr. Kahn’s research on people’s relationships with nature and technological nature lead him to understand how important it is that we focus on having people in urban environments interact with nature. “It’s through that daily and hopefully deep interaction with nature that children construct their environmental baseline and learn to value nature in their lives,” Dr. Kahn asserts.
To promote urban sustainability along these lines, Dr. Kahn uses an approach that he calls Interaction Pattern Design. He says, “Think about a meaningful way that you’ve interacted with nature, and then characterize it in such a way that you could see the same thing happening with different forms of nature. That’s an interaction pattern.” An example of this, Dr. Kahn explains, is walking along the edge of water and land. Many people take this enjoyment of walking between water and earth, such as on the shore of a beach, which is a pattern of human interaction with nature. He says this is why, when there is a lake in a city, there is often a trail or path running beside it.
Once the interaction pattern is understood, ideas for improving the urban infrastructure can begin to be created that allow for that pattern to be enacted. “The patterns don’t say where or how to do it exactly, but they provide guiding principles for design,” Dr. Kahn says.
The challenge with creating these patterns is developing a level of abstraction so that many different versions can be instantiated. Once you have these versions, he assures, you can understand the basic structure of human-nature interaction. Dr. Kahn uses another example: there are 20 miles of an old abandoned railroad track in Seattle that have now been converted into trail, right in the heart of urban density. “It’s perfect,” he says. Drawing on his evolutionary psychological leanings, Dr. Kahn asks us to imagine the interaction patterns of hunters and gatherers, who would leave the safety of camp and head out into deeper nature, and then return to the safety of home. That interaction pattern of “walking or running a great distance, and then returning” is a part of us still today, and can be partly enacted even in Seattle, because of the design of the urban infrastructure. Thus interaction pattern designs such as this provide principles that researchers can use to create urban environments with nature, where people can flourish.
“Wildness is still within us, and we are increasingly building cities that take us away from that, which isn’t healthy,” emphasizes Dr. Kahn. “These interaction patterns help us push back on the domestic and make urban living a little bit more wild. It’s not all or nothing. There just has to be a balance. But the balance keeps shifting to less nature, more density, more concrete. We need to change that.”
About Dr. Kahn
At age 16, Dr. Kahn moved to a communally run ranch in northern California. There were 670 acres of land, and it was rural, an hour up the dirt road from the smallest town. He lived there for four years and was able to live close to the land every day. “I could get on one of my horses and ride as long and hard as I could for days and weeks,” Dr. Kahn recalls, “it was just really formative in terms of providing a sensibility of a wilder interaction in life.”
He has a connection with nature that he feels most strongly when he’s interacting with it. “I feel deeply when I’m out in nature,” he says. “When I’m in a city environment, I can feel where parts of me shut down. When I’m in a natural area, I can feel how other parts of me come alive.” He says it’s wonderful, but also a liability because he’s aware of the difficulties of living in an urban area. But those sensitivities, he says, help him see some things that need to be changed in the urban infrastructure and help him have a voice in what that can look like.
Dr. Kahn’s focus on nature has also made him very aware of technology: of not only benefits but costs. “For example, we spend too much time on our screens, and it’s not healthy,” Dr. Kahn says. Understanding this leads him to limit his use of technology, where he can, which he says is a challenge for all of us, given our increasingly technological world.
Humans are a technological species, drawn to technology and innovation; that is part of “modern mind,” Dr. Kahn says. “But the modern mind is still contiguous with our ancestral mind, and thrives with nature as both an assisting and resisting reality.” Through interaction with nature, and especially more wild nature, the mind becomes more alert, aware, and conscious, in a quiet way. That interaction allows for an awareness of space without form. “When we have our scientific hats on,” Dr. Kahn says, “we can examine the evidence for the proposition that nature is essential for physical health and psychological well-being and human flourishing, but we aren’t really looking at the more profound mechanisms. Nature is a portal into deeper ways of being.”

SIDEBAR: Advice for Students
Kahn advises students academically to go deep and broad. Depth is critical. Not just in the empirical literature in psychology, but in terms of psychological theory. There’s not enough of that these days, he explains. Also read in other areas outside of psychology that you’re interested in. Connect the disciplines and find ways to see their synergy, and how they can say something new. Choose based on your deep interests. “Feel those intuitively,” he advises.

For students wanting to study ecopsychology, which is the psychological study of humans with the more-than-human world, there are different ways forward. Some are more empirical and draw, for example, on the field of environmental psychology, and focus especially on experimental and lab-based studies. “The challenge here is to bring in enough richness and depth of the more-than-human world and metrics that are not so amenable to quantification,” Dr. Kahn states. Other ways are more clinical, experiential, anthropological, and phenomenological. “They are all good,” he explains. “There’s a lot of good work to be done.”

Peter H. Kahn, Jr., PhD, is professor in the Department of Psychology and School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and director of the Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems (HINTS) Laboratory at the University of Washington. He is also editor-in-chief of the academic journal Ecopsychology. He received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. His publications have appeared in such journals as Science, Child Development, Developmental Psychology, Human-Computer Interaction, and Journal of Systems Software, as well as in such proceedings as CHI, HRI, and Ubicomp. His five books (all with MIT Press) include Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life (2011).



Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


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