Kara Lefevre, PhD, MSc – Brain Blogger http://brainblogger.com Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.6 The Neurobiology behind a Sense of Place http://brainblogger.com/2013/06/07/the-neurobiology-behind-a-sense-of-place/ http://brainblogger.com/2013/06/07/the-neurobiology-behind-a-sense-of-place/#comments Fri, 07 Jun 2013 11:00:01 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=14744 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.


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.

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The Developing Developmental Biology of Childhood Adversity http://brainblogger.com/2013/03/14/the-developing-developmental-biology-of-childhood-adversity/ http://brainblogger.com/2013/03/14/the-developing-developmental-biology-of-childhood-adversity/#comments Thu, 14 Mar 2013 11:00:01 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=14290 Research over the last century has shown — unsurprisingly — that social hardships in early life can cause enduring health problems. A common example is poor nutrition, clearly a link between childhood poverty and adult illness. A related, heartening puzzle: how do some kids manage to thrive despite such socioeconomic disadvantages?

Cutting-edge studies in animal biology are shedding new light on a major reason why. That is, the development of biology and behavior is driven by gene-environment interactions. The upshot is that individuals are not affected equally by tough conditions. These individual differences arise from the interplay between an organism’s inherited traits and its surroundings. The classic notion of “nature versus nurture” is thus rendered obsolete.

The tricky part is how to go about understanding the role of individual variation in organisms’ responses to their environments. These dynamics are notoriously difficult to study and predict. Variation in numerous genes, operating in hyper-diverse environments, leads to complex interactions. Teasing apart the relationships demands sophisticated analyses, including experimental approaches not possible in human research. In this way, studies of other species are identifying mechanisms for the health impacts of early social stress.

For example, macaque monkeys reared without their mothers develop emotional abnormalities, such as poor social skills and aggression. Recent experiments show that the response to those adverse conditions depends on individual variation within a gene. The gene is linked to production of a protein involved in brain function, and in mediating responses to stress, anxiety and depression.

Studies of simple model animals take this work further, enabling actual gene manipulation. Fruit fly experiments show how chronic food deprivation at the larval stage interacts with natural variation in a gene that controls foraging. The early adversity then influences adult exploratory behavior. This willingness to investigate is essential for finding food — in mammals it is also critical for development of independence and mate selection. The poor nutrition in flies also affects eventual reproductive output, the ultimate index of a stressor’s impact.

Collectively, such studies show that some genotypes may be more sensitive to environmental conditions than others. That means individuals can experience different behavior and health outcomes in response to the same conditions.

This research into the “developmental biology of social adversity” is an important advance in studying the health impact of early life conditions. Conventional approaches tend to miss the point that many interacting factors underlie most health problems. Important questions in this emerging field include how the strength, timing, and duration of early life adversity influence development, and how interventions might alter health outcomes.


Bardo MT (2010). Novelty, Pages 471–476 in Encyclopedia of Behavioral Neuroscience. Academic Press. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-045396-5.00168-8

Boyce WT, Sokolowski MB, & Robinson GE (2012). Toward a new biology of social adversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 Suppl 2, 17143-8 PMID: 23045689

Burns JG, Svetec N, Rowe L, Mery F, Dolan MJ, Boyce WT, & Sokolowski MB (2012). Gene-environment interplay in Drosophila melanogaster: chronic food deprivation in early life affects adult exploratory and fitness traits. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 Suppl 2, 17239-44 PMID: 23045644

Cirulli F, Reif A, Herterich S, Lesch KP, Berry A, Francia N, Aloe L, Barr CS, Suomi SJ, & Alleva E (2011). A novel BDNF polymorphism affects plasma protein levels in interaction with early adversity in rhesus macaques. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36 (3), 372-9 PMID: 21145664

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