[Note: Most links here are still valid.]
Science news flash:
Swimming with dolphins is an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, say researchers in this week’s British Medical Journal.
Their findings support the theory of biophilia, which shows how human health and wellbeing are dependent on our relationships with the natural environment.
Hmmm. And what is “biophilia”, you ask? Hint: it’s not some perverted sexual practice. Instead, try this:
Biophilia is the love (philia) of Nature (bio).
E. O. Wilson popularized the word in a book of the same name published by Harvard University Press, 1984. He used it to describe what he asserts to be an instinctive bond between human beings and other species. He defined biophilia as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”, and argued that they are determined by a biological need.
It has since been developed as part of theories of Evolutionary Psychology, in particular by Stephen R. Kellert in his book The Biophilia Hypothesis (Island Press, 1993) and by Lynn Margulis. Kellert’s work seeks to determine common human responses to perceptions of, and ideas about, plants and animals, and to explain them in terms of the conditions of human evolution.
Here’s another article on the dolphin research:
The idea might sound like new age mumbo-jumbo. But wait – this week, scientists writing in the British Medical Journal said that swimming with dolphins really does alleviate depression.
It supports a theory put forward by the sociobiologist Edward O Wilson. According to his idea of biophilia, human health and wellbeing are dependent on our relationships with the natural environment. This means that animals and natural scenery help us feel better, and our happiness around nature is somehow hard-wired into the brain. [Emphasis added.] A growing body of clinical evidence suggests that Professor Wilson might have a point. In a paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2001, public health scientist Howard Frumkin of Emory University, Atlanta, reviewed the evidence for the health benefits of four kinds of contact with the natural environment: contact with animals, plants and wilderness and viewing landscapes.
OK, so what does that have to do with naturism? Um, wait, “naturism”, “nature” — hey, why is this fondness for going around naked called “naturism” anyhow?
The term goes back quite a ways. I’d need to review naturist history for a more complete answer, but I know the term was in use in Europe as far back as 1930 — and it’s still preferred in Europe over “nudism” even now.
Undoubtedly related to the whole idea of “getting back to nature”, dontcha think? The whole Garden of Eden mythology? [The words “nature” and “genesis” share — along with “native” and “genital” and many other words — an Indo-European language root.]
In Joni Mitchell’s words
We are stardust, we are golden [no tan lines]
We are caught in the devil’s bargain [civilization, clothes]
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
However, this isn’t merely a Hippie idea. Stripping off one’s clothes has long been a metaphor for returning to nature. For instance, in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ memoir Cross Creek there is a story about a trip she took with her friend Dess, on the St. John’s river in Florida, in a small boat. On this occasion, Marjorie and Dess were clothed, but
[Dess] lives a sophisticate’s life among worldly people. At the slightest excuse she steps out of civilization, naked and relieved, as I should step out of a soiled chemise.
Why do so many people find naturism to be relaxing, soothing, and an antidote to stress and depression? Say, you don’t suppose it could be… biophilia?
Makes a lot of sense. Why do you suppose naturists like beaches and swimming so much? Yeah, the best way to swim is naked, but also there’s all that… water, that our ancestors crawled out of hundreds of millions of years ago… the place that dolphins eventually returned to and now call home.
As essayist Janet Lembke says in Skinny Dipping,
Bare skin is the one and only right criterion for receiving water’s gracious acceptance or any acceptance whatsoever from that element. But Pliny also seems to say something more: Stripping off not caution but the stale, crusty garments of preconception, peeling sensibly down to raw, new nakedness, is the only way to enter and be properly embraced by the world.
I’ve written quite a bit more about nakedness and nature here, so I’ll close for now. But here’s one thought to take away — why don’t the august savants who publish in places like the British Medical Journal just cut to the chase and do some serious research on what naturism can do to alleviate depression?
Related story: Getting Close To Nature Is Good For You
More references on biophilia:
Edward O. Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis
Originally posted November 29, 2005