Synopses & Reviews
THE SCIENCE OF PLACE
Last spring, I spent several days sealed off from the sweet palmy swelter of New Orleans in a series of frigid polyester conference rooms, listening to men in white coats discuss the latest developments in brain science. Weary of sci-fi scanning techniques and neurotransmitter balances, I treated myself to a lecture by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago best known for his. improbable best-seller, Flow; despite its easygoing title, this rather difficult, scholarly book methodically explores the parameters of what the author terms "optimum experience" and the rest of us call a good time. As I had hoped, Csikszentmihalyi was not concerned with the workings of pills or the measurement of rats, and his introductory remarks, which centered on his earliest forays into his chosen area of inquiry, went straight for the jugular of behavioral science. "As a small child, I wondered why most of the otherwise knowledgeable, accomplished adults who surrounded me seemed to have almost no idea about how to live a satisfying life," he said. "It was clear to me even then that the answer wasn't money or power but, somehow, the ability to control and enjoy one's experience."
A bit of unaccustomed reflection on one dimension of our experience suggests that the answer to that perennial child's questionIf grown-ups know so much, why aren't they' happy?--is increasingly bound up with the places in which we spend our lives. Many, of the eclectic researches that support this commonsensical idea are less discoveries than rediscoveries of principles that our forebears considered obvious. Throughout history, . people of all cultureshave assumed that environment influences behavior. Now modem science is confirming that our actions, thoughts, and feelings are indeed shaped not just by our genes and neurochemistry, history and relationships, but also by our surroundings.
More than two thousand years, ago, Hippocrates' observation that our well-being is affected by our settings was established as a cornerstone of Western medicine. The healers of antiquity had no idea that the malaria parasite is carried by mosquitoes, but they noted that the residents of hill towns were healthier than those from marshy regions, and concluded that the- problem was the "bad air"--maI aria--of such places. Of all the environmental influences on a person's state, however, "it is chiefly the changes of seasons which produce diseases, and in the seasons the great changes from cold or heat," wrote the father of medicine, adding that "Such diseases as increase in the winter ought to cease in the summer, and such, as increase in, the summer ought to cease in the winter . . . ."
The centuries. of literature on the relationship between, mood and the seasons, comprise a striking testimony to science's venerable association of behavior and environment: One of the most fundamental and enduring principles of classical medicine, positively encouraged analogies, between our internal and external, climates. Physicians believed that, the action of the four humors, or body fluids, determined everything from a person's constitution to his character. Because the balances of yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood, which corresponded to the four elements of fire, earth; water, and air, were also related to summer, fall, winter, and spring, anindividual's physiological and behavioral changes were inevitably viewed in the context of the sun's. In the second century A..D., Aretaeus' prescribed that "Lethargics are to be laid in, the light and, exposed to the rays of the sun, for the disease is gloom"; in the fourth century, Posidonius observed: "Melancholy occurs in autumn, whereas mania in summer."
Classical science's propensity for viewing a person's state in its environmental context persisted down through the ages. In the seventeenth century, the English scholar Robert Burton, who suffered from, bipolar disorder; in which profound depressions alternate with chaotic bursts of mania, compiled his exhaustive Anatomy of Melancholy: This text includes some, stereotypical assumptions about (climate and national as well as individual temperament that remain commonplace: "Hot countries are most troubled with . . . great, numbers of madmen . . . . They are ordinarily so choleric in their speeches, that scarce two words pass without railing or chiding in common talk, and often quarreling in their streets .... Cold air in the other extreme is almost as bad. as hot. ., . . In those northern countries, the people are therefore generally dull; heavy, and in'clude) many witches, which some ascribe to melancholy." Two, hundred years later, this tendency to see connections between behavior and its setting still prevailed among the first practitioners of the infant science of psychiatry.
Around the turn of the twentieth century; the wisdom of the ages concerning the. relationship between place and state was eclipsed by technological and cultural changes so rapid and vast that social scientists still debate our abilityto adjust to them: In one of the least remarked of these transformations, the Industrial Revolution drew the West indoors. Turning away from the natural world, huge populations gravitated toward a very different one made up of homes and workplaces that were warm and illuminated regardless of season or time of the day-although even on a rainy morning, it is brighter outside than inside with the lights on.
Society quickly adapted to its new indoor urban environment. Only a hundred years ago, the overwhelming majority of Americans lived in the country, while today, most cluster in metropolitan areas. Like other living things, however, our species has evolved over millions of years to respond to the cycles of the earth and sun with predictable biochemical and behavioral changes. Environmentally minded scientists have begun to question the trade-offs we unwittingly make in order to live sealed up inside an artificially heated, cooled, and lighted world that is structured around economic rather than biologic concerns.
Are New Yorkers and Californians so different because they live in such different settings? Why do some of us prefer the city to the country? How do urban settings increase crime? Why do we feel better after an experience in nature?
In this fascinating and enormously entertaining book, Winifred Gallagher explores the complex relationships between people and the places in which they live, love, and work. Drawing on the latest research on behavioral and environmental science, The Power of Place examines our reactions to light, temperature, the seasons, and other natural phenomena and explores the interactions between our external and internal worlds.
Gallagher's broad and dynamic definition of place includes mountaintops and the womb, Alaska's hinterlands and Manhattan's subway, and she relates these settings to everything from creativity to PMS, jet lag to tales of UFOs.
Full of complex information made totally accessible, The Power of Place offers the latest insights into the any ways we can change our lives by changing the places we live.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -235) and index.
About the Author
Winifred Gallagher is the author of The Power of Place, Just the Way You Are (a New York Times Notable Book), Working on God, Spiritual Genius, and, most recently, House Thinking. She has written for numerous journals and magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. She lives in Manhattan and Long Eddy, New York.