Nature, language and law

I’ve spent much of my working life as an editor immersed in the world of law – legal journals, books, court judgments, law reports and the myriad other literary effusions of a world that balks at any linguistic ornamentation that might inadvertently obfuscate rather than elucidate. (This blog, incidentally, borrows its working title, The English Reports, from a collection of reports of judgments of the English Courts reported between the Middle Ages and the mid-19th Century). Many legal editors would gladly concur with 16th century English jurist William Fulbecke, who declared, in a moment of spectacular understatement, that “the books of law … are not pleasant to read, the words or terms are harsh and obscure, dull, and coldly prosaic, the style no whit delightful.”

And yet, however clinical and rationalistic it aspires to be, legal language, like any language, is steeped in images. Of the metaphors that pervade its everyday idiom, particularly any part thereof pertaining to the world of business and commerce, it is fascinating how so many seem to draw on the forces of the natural world, and perhaps above all, how many have an aquatic resonance.

We speak for instance of “keeping one’s head above water”, or being “deep in debt”; of liquidity, pools of resources, and the ebb and flow of the economic cycle. Remaining solvent requires good cash-flow and a steady flow of work. A company is floated; revenue pours in. We speak of a reservoir of capital, a buoyant market, infusions of capital, sinking funds, money being “siphoned off” or “pumped in”. A business drowns in debt, becomes insolvent, enters liquidation; wealth “trickles down”.

We speak of bailing out, going belly-up, pouring money down the drain, going under, shipwrecked companies foundering on the rocks. A firm is offered a lifeboat; a lender pulls the plug. Under a wave of debt a business files for bankruptcy, and we demand that those at the helm be held to account when a country sails into insolvency. ‘Currency’ itself (currere: to run) has a watery resonance, in its associations with currents, as do “affluent” and “flush” (fluere: to flow), both of which convey a sense of flow. Conversely, an account may be frozen, and freezing orders imposed; floating charges crystallise into fixed charges, blocked accounts impede the movement of funds. Stopping a flow is linked to the metaphor of drying out: funds dry up; revenue sources run dry.

These associations with fluidity and porosity and the images at play within them seem a long way from the clinical and rationalistic world of the legal profession. This is, after all, a world traditionally suspicious of image, metaphor, and anything else outside the Cartesian worldview, and yet the language it uses to make sense of itself is imbued with these images that convey subtle understandings, the sensate nature of its expressions enlivening our responsiveness to and understanding of the things they denote.

Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature”. Imagery and metaphor “govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.” The psychologist James Hillman likewise considered the metaphorical image our “first unlearned language, which provides the poetic basis of mind, making possible communication between all people and all things”. The image, in other words, provides a way of understanding which is not purely conceptual, but which enables connections to be made between ideas and their archetypal roots.

The further we delve into these metaphors, the more we come to appreciate how a residual connection to our roots in the natural world manifests itself through everyday language, the prosaicism of the realm of commerce, and the laws that govern it, mirrored by the dynamism of those very forces, those very laws, devalued and rejected in mankind’s quest to assert its mastery of, and separation from the rest of nature. Through language, these forces reveal themselves in the unconscious: a primordial substrate, quietly shaping our everyday ways of thinking and being. Ironically, taking up Lakoff and Johnson’s point, this very rebellion of the archaic against the Cartesian order plays a crucial role in maintaining the strength, structure, and integrity of that order.

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The Science of Hiking

A journey on foot is an integrative, mind-body activity. As the legs move, the mind wanders. By being forced to focus on realities close at hand, such as negotiating uneven or perilous ground, the brain is freed from having to concern itself with the background worries that otherwise assail it in the course of daily life. As everyday problems fade into irrelevance, the brain enters new territory; attuned to the rhythms of the land underfoot, the mind is free to wander in its own imagined terrains.

For the Romantics, and many other writers and artists since, time spent in nature was for this reason essential to mental wellbeing, and indeed lay at the very heart of the creative process. What the Romantics knew perfectly well, however, has now become a key focus of scientific research. With more than 50% of the world’s population now living in cities, a recent upsurge in interest in the implications of our increasing alienation from the natural world has led to an increased understanding of the importance of time spent in nature in terms of its impact on our psychological wellbeing.

A spate of studies have looked in particular at an apparent link between the rapid and widespread urbanisation that has occurred across the world over the last half-century and a marked rise in instances of mental illness over the same period. The exact cause of this correlation is still unknown, but one theory holds that a decline in the amount of contact we have with the natural world may have something to do with it.

This was the hypothesis of a 2015 study led by Gregory Bratman of Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology, who sought to establish what exactly it is that might connect reduced contact with nature to the development of psychological disorders. One explanation, Bratman suggests, could be the impact of nature exposure on ‘rumination’, a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought focused on negative aspects of the self, known to be a risk factor for depression and other forms of mental illness.

In their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last summer, Bratman and his colleagues divided a cohort of 38 city-dwellers into two groups, and asked each group to take a 90-minute walk — one through a grassy area near the Stanford University campus, the other along a busy main road in downtown Palo Alto. Brain scans conducted on those who walked through the natural setting showed reduced neural activity in the specific area of the brain responsible for self-focused behavioural withdrawal associated with the development of mental illness. Those who walked through the urban setting showed no such effects, leading the authors to conclude that even a brief excursion in verdant surroundings substantially decreases obsessive, negative thoughts.

Bratman’s study follows in a tradition of scholarship rooted in a school of thought known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART). Pioneered in the 1980s by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in their book The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, ART suggests that exposure to nature has specific effects on our executive attentional system, which can become worn down due to the demands made of it by urban life.

Permanent background noise, compulsive and increasingly compulsory engagement with technology, the demands of multi-tasking and the necessity of constantly having to respond to sudden, disruptive stimuli place a severe strain on our cognitive functions. By contrast, natural environments, according to Attention Restoration Theory, are rich in characteristics necessary for the brain to replenish itself.

This hypothesis has been found to hold true in a slew of studies since the 1980s. A well-known experiment by Terry Hartig and colleagues, for example, comparing the attentional capacity of wilderness vacationers, urban vacationers and non-vacationers before and after their respective holidays, found that the wilderness group showed significant improvements in attentional capacity, measured through proof-reading tests. In another study, Hartig et al. divided a cohort of participants into three groups, all of which completed attention-depleting tasks and then spent 40 minutes walking in a natural setting, walking in an urban setting, or listening to music and reading magazines. Again, participants in the nature walk group significantly outperformed the others at the proof-reading task, affirming a substantial recovery in directed attention.

Similar studies have found that interactions with nature lead to improved performance on Attention Network Tasks and backwards digit span tests used to assess working memory, the cognitive system responsible for temporary storage and manipulation of information. Even looking at images of nature has been shown to have such effects. This kind of ‘passive’ interaction with nature, as opposed to more active engagement in the form of hiking, was the subject of an oft-cited piece of research by Carolyn Tennessen and Bernadine Cimprich, which found that college students whose dormitories looked out onto more pastoral vistas scored better on a range of attentional measures than those with views of less bucolic landscapes.

Exposure to nature thus seems to be effective in replenishing lower-level modules of the executive attentional system. But there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that it may also have an impact on higher-level tasks, such as creative problem solving.

In a 2012 study, psychologists David L. Strayer and Ruth and Paul Atchley sent a group of participants on a four-day wilderness hike, completely cut off from technology, and subsequently asked them to carry out tasks requiring creative thinking and complex problem solving. The study found that participants’ performance on these tasks improved by 50%, leading the authors to conclude that “[t]here is a real, measurable cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time truly immersed in a natural setting”.

This improvement of higher-order cognitive skills derives, the authors of the latter study argue, from “an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.”

Whereas the stimuli we encounter in nature, as University of Michigan professor Marc Berman explains, “modestly grab attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish”, urban environments are “filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.”

The efficacy of exercise per se on cognitive function and emotional wellbeing is fairly well-established, but the full extent of the role of nature exposure in particular, and the mechanisms by which it affects us, is only now beginning to be understood in all its complexity. A hike in the countryside is rich in unique characteristics that will do more for the human brain than any amount of time on a treadmill ever can – that much is clear – and in a rapidly urbanising world, the findings of ongoing research in this field will almost inevitably have ever more profound and far-reaching implications.