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The science of connectedness

This article explores the scientific evidence behind our interconnectedness, and the benefits this can lead to.
graphic representing a network of connections
© University of Reading

If we accept the premise that our mindsets and culture are both the root cause and potential solution to the environmental polycrisis, then the obvious question is, how can we change them?

Individualistic values and practices have been increasing in the majority of countries across the world over the last 50 years1, whilst a sense of connection to nature is limited in the most affluent societies2. Both of these aspects of our mindsets and culture are thought to be linked to a reduced sense of responsibility towards the global environment3,4.

But we aren’t stuck with our own individual mindsets and values, they change throughout our lives. Collectively, our mindsets make up the culture of our society, which certainly does change over time, albeit rather slowly.

Changing our mindsets

One way to challenge a highly individualistic mindset is to look at scientific findings which show that our sense of being a discrete, isolated entity is illusory. A worldview, which instead emphasises our (human) deep interconnectedness with nature, is strongly supported by recent research across disciplines such as biology, neuroscience and psychology.

Our bodies

We might like to think of our bodies as exclusively ‘human’, but each of them contains over 38 trillion bacterial cells. Bacteria live in our blood, brain, gut and on our skin in huge numbers (there are an estimated 440 species living in between your elbow joints and around 1,000 species in your mouth). What’s more, each of our human cells contains tiny but vital organelles that were once free living bacteria.

The body is an open system renewing itself daily with new materials (many of our cells are just a few days or weeks old) and maintaining a permeable boundary to mediate flows of energy, matter, and information. All this is directed by DNA code borrowed from our ancestors and which we will pass on to our descendants to come – DNA that is composed, in very large part, of genetic code from viruses.

infographic titled 'individuality is an illusion' and split into three sections: 1. Information (green section): Neural networks in brain (connections between 170 billion neurons) continually change in response to ideas from others. Attitudes and behaviours (such as obesity risk, voting preferences, taste in music) are contagious across social networks. Viruses carry genes from other species and insert them into our genome. 2. Energy (blue section): 38 trillion bacterial cells influence our moods and behaviours. The body contains around 40kg of oxygen molecules that, if spread around Earth's entire atmosphere, would be 0.03mm apart. 3. Matter (red section): Our skin sheds 1 million microscopic particles every hour to produce a 'signature' cloud around us. The molecules building our bodies were once part of countless other plants and animals including dinosaurs. Click to expand.

Modern science is helping us to deconstruct the illusion that we are separate from our environment

Our minds

You might be tempted at this point to argue that our bodies are part of the environment, but our minds are separate. This is known as the ‘Cartesian split’ of mind and matter, which was strongly advocated by many influential thinkers such as the philosopher René Descartes. Yet, evidence shows that our minds are embodied: our nervous system extends below our brain to wrap itself around our gut, so that bacteria in our intestines affect our moods and behaviours, detracting from our supposed individual autonomy. Our body is also filled with viruses, fungi, and single celled organisms called protozoa which have hidden influences on us. For example, a protozoan called Toxoplasma gondii that resides in the brains of some people, affects their risk-taking behaviour.

In terms of our connection to other minds, we influence each other all the time. The 150 billion neurons in your brain are constantly rewiring in response to every word and touch from others. You are not the same person you were this morning because of your interactions with others (and because of what you read). Even the smells from people nearby can affect us, fomenting anxiety or happiness5.

Connectedness

It’s hard to continue to see ourselves as a unique, distinct human individual in the light of these connections. Our sense of individuality is little more than an illusion. This altered perception of ourselves is good though, both for us and our environment. It’s important for human wellbeing, since a sense of isolation is a key factor in anxiety and depression6. And our self-identity is of critical importance for tackling the climate and biodiversity emergency. When people feel more connected to nature, they are more likely to carry out pro-environmental behaviours, as you saw in Step 2.6.

Of course, simply presenting scientific facts about our connectedness to nature is unlikely to be enough to transform mindsets on its own. Developing a new way of thinking about ourselves and our relationship to others and the natural world is just like acquiring any new skill – it needs training and practice. Researchers are studying how effective particular activities might be in such training using psychological surveys conducted before and after the activity to understand how they might lead to meaningful changes in mindsets and pro-environmental behaviours. In the next Step, you’ll hear from Dr Joelene Hughes who discusses the work the RSPB Wildlife Charity is doing to learn more about the link between nature connectedness and behaviours.

References

  1. Global Increases in Individualism. Santos, H.C., et al. Psychological Science, 28, 1228-1239. 2017
  2. Country-level factors in a failing relationship with nature: Nature connectedness as a key metric for a sustainable future. Richardson, M., et al. Ambio 51, 2201–2213. 2022
  3. A safe and just operating space for human identity: a systems perspective. Oliver, T.H., et al. The Lancet Planetary Health, 6, e919-e927. 2022
  4. Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity. Compton, T. & Kasser, T. WWF 2009
  5. The Self Delusion- The Surprising Science of How We Are Connected To Each Other and the Natural World. Oliver, T.H. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2020
© University of Reading
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