NOT SEEING THE FOREST OR THE TREES
An Examination of Nature Deficit Disorder:
Welcome to our second installment in this social media series called “Finding the Wild Child Within” produced by Elder Greens Canada and the Wildcraft Forest Foundation.
Removing nature from our everyday lives has reached epidemic proportions as human civilization has become more urbanized. This is causing us to actually lose sight of both trees and the forest. This element of nature deficit disorder is called “plant blindness” and it represents an informally-proposed form of cognitive bias, which in its broadest meaning, is a human tendency to ignore plant species. This includes such phenomena as not noticing plants in the surrounding environment, not recognizing the importance of plant life to the whole biosphere and to human affairs, a philosophical view of plants as an inferior form of life compared to animals and/or the inability to appreciate the unique features or aesthetics of plants.
As a cognitive bias this can actually negatively impact our mental and physical health as well as how we socially interact with each other and the world around us. Cognitive biases can affect one’s decision-making skills, limit problem-solving abilities, hamper career success, damage the reliability of memories, and can challenge one’s ability to respond in crisis situations. The condition can also increase anxiety and depression, and impair one’s relationships.
The term “plant blindness” was coined by the botanists and biology educators J. H. Wandersee and E. E. Schussler in their 1999 publication 'Preventing Plant Blindness'. Scientists have suggested that the reason some people don't notice plants is because plants are stationary and similarly coloured, although other research has suggested that plant blindness is affected by cultural practices. A US study looked at how plants and animals are perceived using "attentional blink" (the ability to notice one of two rapidly presented images). The study showed that participants were more accurate in detecting animals in images, rather than plants.
Some scientific research suggests that human brain chemistry and visual processing systems are inherently biased to ignore plants in the environment. Studies have shown that human visual systems cannot effectively process all the information that is seen. Thus, research suggests that priority is given to variable colors, movement, and familiar objects in order to most effectively detect threats and potential food sources. As plants do not often fit these criteria, many scientists think the human brain tends not to fully process their visual presence. Additionally, primates have been shown to have a preference for organisms that behave similarly to their own species. As plants behave very differently than humans, this also suggests an intrinsic component to plant blindness.
Culture has also been shown to play an important role in the establishment of plant blindness in a society. Many believe that evidence for this is found in the decreased level of plant blindness in certain communities. For example, in certain Indian and indigenous communities, plants are highly valued for their role in religion, medicine, and spiritual belief.
In societies where plant blindness is prevalent, several cultural mechanisms are considered to contribute to the phenomenon. Zoo-centric education, that is, the focus on animals and giving preference to animals above all other considerations is considered to be one main cause. In the United States, high school biology textbooks devote only 15% of their content to plants. In many societies, there is often little comprehensive understanding among citizens regarding the complexity behind plants' behaviors, reactions, and movements. The pervasive misunderstanding of evolution as a linear mechanism where humans are most evolved and plants are least evolved, rather than as a complex, non-hierarchical process, may also cultivate plant blindness. Plant blindness is also partially attributed to increased urbanization, which has led to nature-deficit disorder and the decrease in prominence of plants’ roles in everyday life. Finally, the concept that animals are more important than plants is reinforced through cultural over-representation of animals in advertising, entertainment, social media and consumer products.
BBC journalist Christine Ro joins many others suggesting that plant blindness is potentially linked to nature deficit disorder, which she construes is causing what she claims is reduced funding and fewer classes for botany.
Plant blindness has in fact led to a deficit in plant science research and education. Plant science research has been defunded, interest in botany majors has decreased, and plant biology courses have been terminated in recent years. Yet, this plant research is believed to be critical for medicinal and agricultural advancement.
Of very critical importance is that plant blindness may lead to less funding being available for plant conservation efforts. Plants make up 57% of the endangered species list, while only 3.86% of funding for endangered species is allotted to them.
Similarly the way governments and companies manage natural resource extraction might be inadequate because decision-makers are impacted by plant blindness. This leaves the protection of plant biodiversity as not being properly recognized.
Both plant blindness and nature deficit disorder are gaining more attention as parents are recognizing the need to expose their children to more nature. There is also more public awareness as to the importance of nature within individual and community health and mindfulness. The public dialogue around climate change is increasing awareness as to the importance of biodiversity and ecology which requires us to overcome any challenges caused by plant blindness.
But still we have a long way to go.
Several methods have been proposed to combat plant blindness and efforts are on-going. The most prominent campaign addressing this issue is called “Prevent Plant Blindness” and was created by Wandersee and Schussler, the researchers who coined the original term. This campaign uses three main types of advocacy: a classroom poster which has been distributed to 20,000 teachers and endorsed by the Botanical Society of America, a children's mystery picture book about a plant, entitled Lost Plant!, and promotion of plant-growing education, including school-gardens.
Several other suggestions to address the cultural component of plant blindness have also been proposed. Research has shown that creative activities involving plants, such as storytelling, art, and role-playing can help to strengthen children's relationships to plants. Increasing the representation of plants in science education textbooks, specifically those for high school biology has also been encouraged.
As a first step, spreading awareness about plant blindness may help reduce one's biases and this might involve methods by which we acknowledge plants as living beings or “kin”. Citizen science projects involving plants, such as TreeVersity, attempt to help non-botanists see plants in more variable and frequent ways. Plant representation in art and in fictional characters, such as Groot, is considered to be a part of the solution, as well as ensuring plant education employs best practices.
Particularly, it has been suggested that plant education should employ constructivist principles, active learning, and multimedia instruction.
Within the realm of stewardship and the need to recognize, protect and regenerate native plants and their environments, plant activists suggest that humans should be considered as a part of the natural system, rather than outside and above it.
The Wildcraft Forest School continues to play an important role in teaching both adults and children that plants are sentient and intelligent. The school offers certification programs in Yasei Shinrin Yoku which is a form of forest therapy as well as various wildcrafting programs.
For further learning about plant blindness we have included a number of video links. This first video demonstrates that humans have a tendency to miss what is right under their noses. This video is a basic introduction to Plant Blindness.
Another basic introduction video. "Plant blindness" is the inability to appreciate - or sometimes even notice - the plant life around us. And it's a surprisingly common phenomenon. But more and more studies show that spending time in nature is good for our wellbeing. Made in partnership with The Open University.
A Cure for Plant Blindness a presentation by Margaret Conover
This 15 minute talk was given at a local TEDx event. Plant blindness is: "the inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment" and the "misguided, anthropocentric" tendency to rank plants as inferior to animals, rendering them the biological equivalent of wallpaper. We all suffer from plant blindness, and yet the remedy may be found in simple daily practices that we can all enjoy. Margaret Conover is a botanist and science educator. She received her Ph.D. in 1982 for research she conducted on leaves of the lily family in Australia. Now semi-retired, Margaret enjoyed a career in museum education and administration at SBU’s Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences. She teaches part-time at the Center for Science and Mathematics Education of Stony Brook University, and at the New York Botanical Garden. She is a Master Gardener, co-founder and newsletter editor of the Long Island Botanical Society and president of SBU’s Friends of Ashley Schiff Park Preserve.
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