Resistance to change is visible in all animals. At boarding school, I saw friends who felt discomfort in changing their dining seats. Psychologists say that any change in the environment, is initially perceived as a threat by our brain. So, is change a threat or a means of ushering us into a world of fortune?
When I say environmental change, I am not hinting at global warming and climate change but simply pointing at the physical changes in our ecosystem and surroundings.
The world of ecopsychology
I am barging into the world of ecopsychology, an exotic fusion of ecology and psychology, which speaks of the connection between human psychology and the ecosystem. Ecopsychologists like B F Skinner, Sigmund Freud, and Theodore Roszak fostered ecological thinking and contact with the environment for psychotherapeutic purposes and personal growth.
Now, I am neither an ecologist nor a psychologist, so you may question my eligibility to appear wise. In these months of Covid- induced homestay, I have been reading extensively. Later, a life-transforming interview with a ‘vagabond’ enjoying extended vacations from work, broadened my horizon.
Since psychology appears to my teenage eyes like a vast collection of personal anecdotes converted into wonderful theories, I want to believe that my tale will contribute to the existing knowledge.
Need for change
A few months ago, my parents, tired of their humdrum life, chalked up a trip to a panoramic fort palace, Neemrana, in Rajasthan. Exams hovered as my university groomed me for transition into the second year through beautiful Zoom windows. I hope to get a taste of my hostel life soon, if the pandemic does not shrink my undergrad years into Google Classrooms. I need a change, please!
It turns out that no matter how reasonable our logic is, we cannot under-estimate the power of mothers fed up with absent house-helps and ever-hungry kids. At the fort palace, we arrived!
During a stroll, I came across a tourist working at the Portuguese Embassy and an avid traveller. Upon asking how he took care of his work while continuously on the go, he said, “I use my environment in ways that are advantageous.”
Events during the trip sent me on an ecopsychology quest. I had a pending essay writing task, so I thought of the Portuguese gentlemen’s words, “Turn to new surroundings and people. You will find new perspectives waiting.” I went around the hotel, picking up conversations with visitors, reaching out to the receptionist, manager, pantry staff, and so on. I was no longer writing an essay. I was recording life!
This real-time Googling presented a plethora of perspectives from different people and cultures. Instead of a stressful, ‘laptoppish’ search, it was an adorable rendezvous.
You may retort that all this is okay for arts and humanities that blossom in nature. What about mathematics or science? Research by the Applied Cognitive Psychology Journal demonstrates how even a small change in environment benefits us unimaginably. Their study separated two groups and taught each group a method to solve a mathematical problem.
Group 1 went on expeditions to various places in the next few weeks, like slums, sewage plants and cemeteries, while Group 2 was confined to its everyday environment. At the month’s end, both groups got similar mathematical problems to solve, using novel methods. The results were thought-provoking.
In Group 2, which stayed in the ordinary everyday environment, only 31 per cent of students could approach the problem. But in Group 1, which kept changing its environment, more than 73 per cent of students approached the solution without using conventional methods. Research has proved that any change in environment, either positive or negative, can drastically improve skills, such as mathematical, logic, and reasoning.
Let’s talk of Jonas Salk at Pittsburgh Hospital, who worked on the polio vaccine. Years after he started, he found himself exhausted and at a dead end. He retreated to a monastery, and that’s where the breakthrough happened. Salk developed the first successful vaccine against the crippling disease and became one of the most revered medical scientists of the century.
What does this have to do with ecopsychology? In his interviews, Jonas Salk insisted that something about being in that environment cleared his obstructed mind. Eco-psychological research explained that Salk’s mental shift was the after-effect of the monastery’s ecosystem, allowing him to regain perspective. As his brain was processing the new environment, it leaped, solving the problem he had been stuck on for years.
Small changes matter
But of course, not all of us can wind up in a 13th-century sanctuary whenever we hit a mental block, right? Renowned ecopsychologist Theodor Rozak says, “When it comes to using the environment beneficially, a change in our ecosystem matters more than how big the change is.” He goes on to say, “Moving from a surrounding with three plants to a surrounding with six plants, is a huge ecological change, and can benefit us in ways beyond logic.”
When J K Rowling was wrestling with her final Harry Potter book, she moved to the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, to escape from her daily environment, only to return with The Deathly Hallows. Now and then, Bill Gates conducts his famous ‘Think Weeks’ alone in the forest. To write his first memoir, ‘Dreams from My Father’, Barack Obama constantly changed his surroundings, saying that his environment writes more than him.
Can we take advantage of shifting environments if we cannot afford travel? “Yes,” says psychologist Mary James, who believes that even moving to another room makes a difference. Albert Einstein shifted his music playlist from Mozart to Chamber and solo recitals to jazz, to generate new ideas. A change in aroma reverses the mindset and encourages refreshing and creative thoughts. Peppermint aroma is a great source to help us brainstorm, and cinnamon allows us to concentrate and focus.
We need not pursue massive changes in the environment, like travelling. Even small changes in the environment can give our brain the most beautiful ingredients for growth. So, if you are one of those who advocate a ten-to-five ‘tied to the chair’ schedule for your workforce, think hard. If you are a student wearing out the study table 24/7, then think twice.
Go ahead, give yourself a change!
The writer is currently studying BSc Physics at Ashoka University