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Psychological Factors of Interacting with Wilderness

Article Date:  May 16, 2016






Psychological Factors of Interacting with Wilderness

Christina Polachi

Masters Student, Department of Kinesiology: Outdoor Education

University of New Hampshire

Faculty: Dr. Brent J. Bell
















            This paper explores the physiological and psychological impacts of human interaction with nature and wilderness, the varying levels of interaction, and the human value attached to the interaction. The theories of cognitive restoration, biophilia, ecopsychology and ecofeminism suggest the importance of human interaction with nature and wilderness. Each human has an independent and different interactions with wilderness, is one interaction with wilderness or nature more valuable or more influential to overall human physiological and psychological well-being? This paper will explore the question, being in nature versus doing in nature, is one more valuable to overall human well-being than the other?


Keywords: wilderness, physiological, psychological, levels of interaction, value.














            Outdoor education and wilderness therapy  operate on the same foundational principle: out of door experiences. For the purpose of this paper, the out of door experiences will be considered as interactions with green spaces, nature, and the wilderness. The definition of the wilderness has long been debated and Nash (1982) explained that although “wilderness has a deceptive concreteness at first glance,” (Nash, 1982, p. 54) there has yet to be a universally accepted definition.

Mitten (2009) explained that in the past 30 years, outdoor education, experiential education and wilderness therapy have become more focused on doing activities in nature rather than simply being in nature. The outdoor related fields all rely on the wilderness as a necessary and complimentary element to the experiences they offer participants. Mitten stated, “outdoor professionals primarily used the outdoors as a place to get physically or mentally fit and accomplish goals that often proved mastery over the environment or used nature as the back drop for them to apply technique to clients to achieve behavioral and physical change” (Mitten, 2009, p. 21). Simply put, the fundamental value of being in nature has been taken for granted, unacknowledged, overlooked undervalued in theory, research and practice (Mitten, 2009; Gillis & Ringer, 1999;Beringer & Martin, 2007).

The deceptive concreteness of the wilderness and the notion of wilderness as the backdrop will serve as the foundation to this paper (Mitten, 2009; Besthorn & Saleebey, 2003). This paper will focus on the physiological and psychological impacts on humans in nature and wilderness, the varying levels of interaction with nature and wilderness and the human value base attach to nature and wilderness. To gain a better understanding of the impacts of being in nature/wilderness, this paper will explore different scholarly perspectives and theories of human physical and emotional interactions with nature including: the restorative capacities, attention restoration, ecofeminism, ecopsychology and biophilia. Ultimately, I will explore the question, being in nature versus doing in nature, is one more valuable to overall human well-being than the other?

Physiological Influences

Restorative Capacities of Nature/Wilderness

            Nature and wilderness have been associated with physiological restorative capacities. Berman, Jonides and Kaplan (2008), stated “nature which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed- attention abilities a chance to replenish” (p. 1207). Berman et al (2008) explained the attention restoration theory (ART) as rooted in the work of William James (1892). William James (1892) presented the concept of voluntary attention, which Kaplan & Kaplan (1989) later coined as “directed attention.” Directed attention often leads to mental and emotional fatigue as it under voluntary control and requires a lot of effort to maintain focus and conscious processing (Kaplan, 1995).

Nature and wilderness is the antithesis of directed attention. Nature and wilderness invites involuntary attention, which is emotionally and physically restorative (Kaplan, 1995). Nature and wilderness organically invites restorative capacities as it is fueled by involuntary, effortless fascination, the notion of being away from routine mental stimuli, a sense of extent, and compatibility between humans and the setting (Kaplan, 1995). Berman, et al’s ( 2008), study found that directed attention was restored due spending time in nature/wilderness. As a result of the involuntary attention nature/wilderness invites, the directed attention had the opportunity to rest and recharge  (Berman, et al, 2008).


            E.O. Wilson was the pioneer behind the theory of biophilia. Mitten (2009a) explained that

E.O Wilson asserted that there is the existence of a biologically based, inherent human need to affiliate with life and lifelike processes […]human identity and personal fulfillment depend on our relationship to nature as does human’s positive emotional, cognitive, aesthetic and spiritual development (p. 24)

This claim suggests the importance and the innate need for humans to be in nature/wilderness as it affords the human body physical and emotional health. Gass, Gillis and Russell (2012) explained, “biophilia is part of people’s mental and emotional hard wiring” (Gass, et al, 2012, p. 99). Humans may naturally need and desire interaction with nature and wilderness.  If this natural tendency is denied, it can affect cognitive and emotional health, hence the importance of human interaction with being nature and wilderness. According to the theory of biophilia, human biology pre-established that humans, physically and emotionally, need to be in nature and wilderness.

Health Benefits

Mitten (2009a) compiled a collection of research and data from a variety of professional fields that interact with a form of wilderness and nature. These fields included, medical, political science, environmental psychology, ecology, cognitive science and social psychology, social work, to name a few. In the collective research, Mitten (2009a) found that the physical benefits of interacting with nature and wilderness included:

sunlight, vitamin D, increases calcium uptake, better diet, immune system strengthening, promotes healing, reduces pain, decreases the effect of jet lag, increases life expectancy, provides opportunities for exercise, decreases BMI, lowers systolic blood pressure, reduces avoidable disease risk factors, reduces cancer risk and reduces osteoporosis risk (Mitten, 2009a, p. 25)

Mitten (2009a) collected these physical health benefits of spending time in nature and wilderness, which include longer life, reduced pain and healing. The number of physical benefits of interacting with nature/wilderness supports the notion of simply being in nature is beneficial to humans.  

Psychological Influences

Ecopsychology and Ecofeminism

Mitten (2009a) described ecopsychology as founded on the premise that the human’s physical health is impacted by the ecological health of the planet. The author stated, “it is believed that the mind can be comforted and health through time in natural environments. Therefore the destruction of the natural environment negatively affects the physical and mental health of humans (Mitten, 2009a, p. 23).  Ecofeminism focuses on the power over relationship and oppression and marginalization of the Earth and women is deeply connected (Mitten, 2009. Mitten (2009b) stated, “women have found nature to be healing, were prone to find a sense of place, and felt spiritually connected to the land. As result, women tended to have a mutual healing relationship with nature” (Mitten, 2009b, p. 34). The nurturing aspect of the natural world seems to simultaneously benefit to women.

Pretty (2004) claimed that regardless to human individualism the presence of living things contribute to all human’s well being and over all good feeling. The author claimed that natural environments offer less mental stressors and therefore reduce the emotional stress a human might feel in another environment. The author emphasized the importance of the experience of being in nature rather than the experiencing of happening upon nature. Pretty stated, “nature seems to make positive contributions to our health, helps us recover from pre-existing stresses or problems, has immune effect by protecting us from future stresses and helps us to concentrate an think more clearly (Pretty, 2004, p. 2). Pretty suggested the importance of direct participation with nature and wilderness.

In her collection of research regarding the benefits of spending time in nature, Mitten (2009a), also documented the numerous psychological and emotional benefits of being in nature and wilderness.  The psychological and emotional benefits that Mitten (2009a) found include:

Restorative, stress reduction, attention restoration, improves mood states, reduces depression, reduces anger and anxiety, enhances feelings of pleasure, increases mental acuity, reduces mental fatigue, improve problem solving ability and concentration, improves body image for women, reduces the impact of stress, increases feelings of empowerment, encourages nurturing characteristics, decreases risk of seasonal affective disorder, mitigate impact of dementia, including Alzheimer’s (p.25)

Additionally, Roggenbuck and Driver (2000) determined eight criteria of benefits of interacting with wilderness and nature including: developmental- self concept, self identity, skills development, mental health, physical health, self sufficiency, self- reliance, social identity- family, group, and social, educational, spiritual, aesthetic/creativity.

There is evidence for the importance and benefit of being in nature and wilderness connected to emotional and psychological health. The more time humans spend in nature and wilderness the more physiological and psychological benefits can be accumulated and maintained.  

            The theories of cognitive restoration, biophilia, ecopsychology and ecofeminism all support the notion of the importance to spending time in nature/wilderness. Although these theories support the connection, need, and benefit of human interaction with nature and wilderness, it is difficult to separate the theories from their connection to activity in nature and wilderness.  The current physiological and psychological findings regarding human interactions in nature and wilderness continues to beg the question, with the absence of activity, how do humans benefit from being in nature and wilderness? Is it possible to isolate or separate nature and wilderness from activity and examine the physiological and psychological benefits of simply, being in nature?

Levels of Interaction

            Kellert (2002) suggested that there are three forms/levels of experiencing and interacting with nature and wilderness. These three forms include: direct, indirect, and vicarious/ symbolic. Direct experience is described as unplanned, physical contact and interaction with nature and wilderness. It is the physical encounter with plants, animals and environment absent of human manipulation. Direct experience,

involves a young person’s spontaneous play or activity in a backyard, in a nearby forest, meadow, creek, neighborhood park, or even in an abandoned lot. In each case, the natural setting, though influenced by a human manipulation and activity, includes creatures and habitats that function largely independent of human intervention and control (p. 119)

The qualifier for direct experience is the habitat functions independent of human control.

Kellert (2002) explained that indirect contact with nature or the wilderness is direct contact with the natural world but has human made and implemented restrictions and limitation. Indirect contact with nature is a result of human regulation and manipulation to prescribe the encounter. Indirect contact with nature includes zoos, aquariums, a pet, potted plants in the home, farms, “all habitats and creatures dependent on extensive human intervention and control” (p. 119).

Kellert (2002) explained that vicarious/symbolic experience of nature and the wilderness require no interaction with the physical world. The human’s interaction with nature and the wilderness is through representations of the natural world, which can include through the computer, the television, books, pictures.

 Studies have found that merely viewing nature and wilderness either indirectly or vicariously provides people with physical and emotional benefits (Kaplan, 2001; Pretty, Peacock, Sellens &Griffin, 2005). Kaplan’s (2001) study explored the relationship of people’s access to windows in their homes and their exposure the nature. This study found evidence in the importance of indirect and vicarious contact with nature. This study showed participants 40 images that incorporated nature ranging from a parking lot to a field and found that the highest rank image was of “unmanaged woods.”  The participant’s satisfaction with the “unmanaged woods” is an example of vicarious experience of nature.  Similarly, the study also found that people who had views of nature through the window of a home, significantly contributed the view of nature, to their satisfaction and well being, as well as they claimed they felt more positive, focused and less distracted. Additionally, the study found that people who indirectly interacted with nature through activities including gardening, hiking, going to a park felt more focused and alert and had a elevated satisfaction.

Similarly, Maas, Groenewegen, De Vries and Spreeuwenberg (2006) found that the more and closer green space to a living environment impacted and improved people’s health. Additionally, Denson (2014) wrote about the Oregon Prison System playing videos nature for inmates who were in solitary confinement. One inmate stated,

the environment had an instant and immediate calming effect on me. The dim lighting, the sound of waves crashing, the sight of the beach video with waves repetitively going in and out with palm trees swaying all provided an effective distraction, an escape from my immediate situation in a manner that didn’t pump me up (Denson, 2014)

This person’s vicarious experience of nature positively contributed to the person’s cognitive, emotional and behavioral health.  

Conversely, Murphy(1999) found that vicarious experiences of nature and wilderness are influential, but as they do not involve a physical interaction with nature they are less poignant. It was also found that the images, sounds and memories triggered by the vicarious experience of nature and wilderness were influential but only make up part of the wilderness experience. “Media did play a crucial role in meaning making for the informants. However, until that physical interaction occurs, wilderness remains a theoretical perspective” (Murphy, 1999).

Direct, indirect, vicarious interactions with nature and wilderness all impact and affect human physiological and psychological well-being in varying degrees. Regardless of the level of interaction a human has with wilderness and nature, one consciously or subconsciously attaches a personal value to the interaction. Kellert (2002) suggested that there are nine values of nature: aesthetic, dominionistic, humanistic, moralistic, naturalistic, negativistic, scientific, symbolic, utilitarian, which afford humans “adaptive significance.” Humans individually order these nine values according to their intrinsic value base, regardless of their level of interaction with nature and wilderness.  

According to Kellert (2002), the aesthetic value is defined as, “physical attraction and appeal of nature,” the dominionistic value is defined as, “mastery and control of nature,” the humanistic value is defined as, “emotional bonding in nature,” the moralistic value is defined as, “ethical and spiritual relation to nature,” the naturalistic value is defined as “exploration and discovery of nature,” the negativistic value is defined as, “fear and aversion of nature,” the scientific value is defined as, “knowledge and understanding of nature,” the symbolic value is defined as, “nature as a source of language and imagination,” and lastly, the utilitarian value is defined as, “nature as a source of material and physical reward.”

A homesteader, a rock climber, and a prisoner in the Oregon Prison System might all psychologically and psychologically be impacted by their varying levels of interaction with nature. They might also all shares the humanistic value, perhaps in a different value based order, in their relationship with nature and wilderness. A homesteader directly interacts with nature and wilderness, as a homesteader lives off and in the land and the habitat functions independent of human control. A homesteader might also have an emotional bond with the wilderness and nature. A rock climber, indirectly interacts with nature and wilderness, rock climbing is a human made activity and is done in a regulated and controlled environment. A rock climber might attach the humanistic value to the experience of rock climbing as a rock climber might emotionally bond with the rock face that is climbed. Lastly, a prisoner in the Oregon Prison System vicariously interacts with nature and wilderness, as a prisoner watches images of nature and wilderness on a screen. A prisoner might also attach the humanistic value to the experience of watching a screen, as a prisoner might emotional bond with what is shown.

Ultimately, a homesteader, a rock climber, and a prisoner all interact with nature and wilderness in varying degrees, yet they might all attach the humanistic value to their interaction. Is the prisoner’s vicarious interaction with nature and wildness less influential to one’s overall physiological and psychological well being, than the homesteader’s direct interaction with the wilderness?

This paper has attempted to explore the question: being in nature versus doing in nature, is one more valuable to human well being than the other? Throughout this paper, the theories of cognitive restoration, biophilia, ecopsyhcology and ecofeminism are considered. These theories suggest the importance of human interaction with nature and wilderness lead to physiological and psychological gains. Additionally, direct, indirect, and vicarious interactions with nature and wilderness, all contribute to a human’s physiological and psychological well being in varying degrees, regardless of the value order a human attaches to the interaction.















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