The Neurobiology behind a Sense of Place




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I remember clearly one of the first times I was aware of the concept that can be characterized as a “sense of place.” Several months into a year-long backpacking trip, I was mesmerized by my experiences in East Africa. Then, once it became what would have been summer back home, I experienced a sudden and profound sense of longing for the landscapes of Ontario. I was not homesick so much as missing the whole milieu I would normally experience in that sweet season: the forests, lakes, rock, and activities of summer time.

This attachment to somewhere, be it a natural or a built environment, is known by various terms including place attachment, environmental identity, and rootedness, among others. I personally like “sense of place” as it captures simultaneously the idea of a location along with the more esoteric notion that it involves a feeling; an emotional response. The concept emerged from theoretical and empirical research since the 1970s.

Relationships between self and environment are a central focus in the field of environmental psychology. Such research addresses the physical, social, and natural dimensions of place identity, and indicates that people’s environments can be tightly linked to their sense of self. Our physical environments are important to our identities not merely because they support some of our material needs: they are also the ‘theatre’ in which our life events unfold, and further, environments can play an actual role in our lives. Places can therefore affect our thinking, social structures, and well-being.

Psychologists, human geographers, and neuroscientists are all studying how a sense of place develops. Early childhood experiences have a particularly important influence. The environment in which we were raised has been called the ‘primal landscape’ — it becomes part of our self-identity and a measuring stick for later experiences. This is true not only of natural landscapes, but also of urban landscapes including dense, inner-city neighborhoods. Some of the most important elements that shape our childhood environmental experiences include family, community, the opportunity to play, culture, and natural events.

Environmental identity later in life can then influence how we process information and behave. A recent review by Lengen and Kistemann made a great contribution to this field by linking the concepts from environmental psychology with neurological studies that typically have a wholly different approach (and jargon). Evidence demonstrated that having a conscious sense of place involves a distinct dimension in neural processing. Indeed, specific regions and cells of the brain have been identified that are related to the process. For example, a representation of the visual environment is built in the hippocampus, which plays a key role in spatial memory and learning. The paper detailed ten important neurobiological correlates that are involved in having a sense of place, which are as follows:

This work is exciting because it found a way to bridge the gap between divergent fields, and thus showed how current neurobiology findings can facilitate a better understanding about the subjective feelings of sense of place, such as that which I had experienced in Kenya.

References

DERR, V. (2002). CHILDREN’S SENSE OF PLACE IN NORTHERN NEW MEXICO Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22 (1-2), 125-137 DOI: 10.1006/jevp.2002.0252

Devine-Wright, P., & Clayton, S. (2010). Introduction to the special issue: Place, identity and environmental behaviour Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30 (3), 267-270 DOI: 10.1016/S0272-4944(10)00078-2

Lengen C, & Kistemann T (2012). Sense of place and place identity: review of neuroscientific evidence. Health & place, 18 (5), 1162-71 PMID: 22440778

Lim, M., & Barton, A. (2010). Exploring insideness in urban children’s sense of place Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30 (3), 328-337 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.03.002

Measham, T. (2007). Primal Landscapes: Insights for Education From Empirical Research on Ways of Learning About Environments International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 16 (4), 339-350 DOI: 10.2167/irgee221.0

Image via Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock.

  • onergk69

    Many psychology texts mention the role of the hippocampus in converting working memory into long-term memory. Rarely, do they mention its role in storing experiences in relative space(place)- time. The more relevant our experience, the more likely we recall it w accuracy & intensity.

    So this article is very interesting to me!

    Rich

  • Now, that explains everything how I behave in connection with my environment. I feel happy when I usually go to beautiful places near a lake since I grew up with the same environment. I’ve had good memories in that place so when I am usually stressed out, I have the urge to travel and ends up in a place near a lake. 😀

  • I’ve always had an innate sense of place, and always been fascinated by it. This article has really hit me because it helps explain why I want to go to a beach whenever I’m feeling a little down.

  • Rula

    At a particular place that my family comes from, during my first visit, a warm night, I stood at the shore, looking across the coastline, I could see the terrain, I could see the map mentally and physically, my host said “your body remembers”; that comment felt true to its core. Your article resonates in the same sense, a profound connection.

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  • Kara

    Thanks for your comments. I’m gratified to know that my article connected with some readers.

    ~Kara

  • Chiru K

    hey Kara! 🙂

    I recently spoke to a girl from Malta who said she hated the place she lived in. I dunno why she said that but she seemed to have traveled a lot of places and she doesn’t have any sort of positive feelings towards the place she grew up in. She claimed she’s been there all her life, how do you think her personality would be, given her feelings about her ‘environment’?

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Kara Lefevre, PhD, MSc

Kara Lefevre, PhD, MSc, is a professional environmental biologist, educator, and science writer. She holds a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Toronto and a MSc in Biology from Queen's University. She has combined her interests in biology and travel by studying birds in remote island locations around the world.
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