What does a nightingale have to do with your mental health?
As I write, nightingales are singing outside the window. I am in the wild French Pyrenees, and the river valleys in these mountains still give refuge to nightingales, shy brown birds that have disappeared from much of their former range. Once common in England, they are now rare there. If Keats were alive today, it is unlikely he would have heard one, and so might never have written his Ode to a Nightingale.
Male nightingales are singing to stake out their territory. They take turns with their licks. The first slides through liquid burbles and long fast glides. The second has been listening intently. Not to be outdone, he pitches himself through headlong roulades of melody. The two nightingales take turns, improvising, never repeating. It’s like two great jazz musicians standing on opposite corners dueling for the neighborhood, John Coletrane and Miles Davis topping each other.
In this setting, it is easy to enter the nightingales’ world for a while. Their songs call up something deep and primal that makes you feel more alive, as if your mind and the birds’ mind share the same space.
What if there were no more nightingales? What if there were no wild things? Would it matter to us except in some poetic way? Is wild nature something that has a merely aesthetic appeal?
A new approach to psychology says it would matter a great deal if all wild things disappeared. Ecopsychology says that we can only be fully sane—fully human—when we have intimate contact with the living nonhuman world. Theodore Roszak coined the term ‘ecopsychology’ and set out the intuitions it embodies in 1992 in a book called The Voice of the Earth. Since then both theory and data have accumulated. They point to the conclusion that our mental health depends on us having vital contact with a living world.
E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, or the love of living things. He said that this love is innate within our human mind. While we may be afraid of snakes, our love for living things and our desire to affiliate with them is deeper and broader than such fears.
Studies have been accumulating. The studies show some fascinating things about what a good effect contact with the natural world has on us. In one study, hospital patients’ recovery times were significantly reduced when they had views of trees and plants. Children in school behave better when have access to nature. So do prisoners. Mental patients are significantly calmer. People with pets are happier and live longer than those without them.
These are all new findings and they all point in the same direction. We are healthier, both mentally and physically, when we affiliate with the living, nonhuman world
Solitary confinement is the severest punishment, short of the death penalty, in the Western penal system. Solitary confinement is intended to cause mental distress by depriving someone of all contact with living things, both human and nonhuman. For most people, being solitary in this way is painfully disruptive to the psyche. When isolation is this extreme, it is easy for us to imagine why it might be painful, and why it would lead to mental problems if prolonged.
What is interesting about the new ecopsychological studies is that they show how contact with people does not end our solitary confinement. If we interact with people but not other living things, we remain isolated from much of the living world, and perhaps do not reach our full potential for wellness.
Consider cities. Exciting as cities can be, they are an experiment in depriving people of contact with most forms of nonhuman life. Cities are like being in solitary confinement with other people.
“But,” you might argue, “I can live in a city not only with my family but also with my cat and dog and aspidistra. Doesn’t this meet my daily biophilia dosage for ecopsychological health?”
We don’t know yet, but I suspect the answer is no. If we could create a world in which there was no wild nature and we lived in cities with our pets, food products, and people, could we be fully human? Would we be as psychologically healthy as we could be?
There is a worldwide epidemic of depression, according to the World Health Organization, which it calls the major health hazard of this century. What is it about our society that is causing ever more people to become depressed? I would not be surprised if we discover that depression is linked to a lack of contact with the natural world.
Try a thought experiment. Imagine yourself in solitary confinement. How do you feel? Then imagine yourself in an all white room with no doors or windows, but other people to talk to. Do you feel more comfortable? Then imagine yourself in the same white room with your loved ones and a friendly dog and potted palm. Do you feel still more comfortable? Now imagine that the room is in a villa in the countryside, and you and your family can walk out into green parkland with widely spaced trees, birds singing, horses in the meadow, swans in the pond, trout and frogs in the stream. Is this the most comfortable of the scenarios? For most people, the last of these scenarios would certainly feel the best.
Where does all this point? Theodore Roszak put it this way: “Ecopsychology seeks to heal the…fundamental alienation between the recently created urban psyche and the age-old natural environment.” Ecopsychology suggests that we have a selfish need for a healthy biosphere. If we cut away too much of it, we may inadvertently cut into our own psychological health. If we need to affiliate with the natural world to be fully sane and fully human, then it is in our self-interest to preserve a big chunk of biodiversity, and to make sure that we enjoy it. Our enlightened self-interest may require that we care for the world to care for ourselves.
Do I need a nightingale to make me sane? It’s now a good research question. What I know is that I feel better and more creative after hearing the nightingale’s song. Imagine how health care might change if psychology and psychiatry understood this deeply and took it as a guiding norm, and how such changes might ripple out into society as a whole.