Saturday 10 December 2016

The Affordances of Natural vs Designed Environments (A Purple Peril)

I had a conversation with Eric Brymer (@Ericbrymer) a few weeks ago. Eric is a Reader at Leeds Beckett and is an ecologically minded psychologist interested in the effects of the natural world on mental health. We chatted affordances for a while, and despite it being a very interesting chat, I really wasn’t sure if I had anything to say about the differences between the natural and designed worlds. 

But I have not been able to stop thinking about this topic, and now I think there’s something fairly cool here.

It has long been assumed that natural environments are good for our mental health; getting outdoors, being surrounded by nature, makes us feel good. There’s a few reasons for this; fresh air is good, as is the exercise that typically comes along with being out in nature, even if it’s only a walk. But psychologists have proposed that there are psychological benefits aside from these physiological ones, and have been thinking for a while about how to talk about what those benefits are and how they come about. 

Eric is interested in thinking about an affordance based story; what is different about the affordances of the natural vs the designed world that might lead to psychological well-being? Here's some thoughts.

There are affordance differences between natural and designed environments. On average, overall, a natural environment provides both a wider range of affordances (more types) and within an affordance type (e.g. those supporting locomotion) a natural environment provides more varied examples. Stepping distances along a natural path will change with each step as the spacing between rocks or flat surfaces varies. Because of this, you will encounter some steps that are easy (well within your action boundaries), some that are impossible (well outside your action boundary) and, most interestingly, some that are right on the border, which definitely demand your active participation in order to avoid disaster. 

Designed environments are typically much simpler. As I write this I am in the lobby of a building and the floor is uniform in texture and in its ability to support a step. There are obstacles but they are few and far between and deliberately placed to preserve human-scaled paths from Point A to Point B. After two steps, I could continue to cross the floor with my eyes closed (or glued to my phone) for quite a way before I’d hit any trouble. And everything, everything, is either entirely within or definitely outwith the action capabilities of the typical adult human being. We don’t generally build difficult floors.

What is the consequence of this? My working hypothesis is that because the affordances of the natural environment vary much faster in type and parameters, and because these span the range of people’s abilities, we are forced to become and remain very embedded in the moment. We need to remain actively engaged with our environment, and can’t simply coast along. This strong, real time, perception-action looping is, I think, a good place to be, mentally. There are choices to make, but the right answer is presented along with the question. You are busy, but that activity is focused. There’s less time and fewer resources available to ruminate, worry, or be thinking about anything other than not falling over but when it clicks, when you have this loop running smoothly, everything works and makes sense – your activity is a perfect fit for the environment and that always feels good.

How well this works depends on the kind of activities you can do and the ease with which you can become completely embedded. When I was writing my dissertation, nothing got it out of my head except rock climbing, because you cannot rock climb and think about work at the same time without falling off the wall. I needed a huge demanding pull from my environment to enable me to connect. But when I’m just a bit tired or if I’ve been sitting at my desk writing, a simple walk can do the trick. So different people at different times respond differently to the pull of their environmental affordances. 

I’m still working this through. But the natural world is definitely a richer space, and while we fit it fairly well, that fit varies over space and time. The designed environment is nearly always sparser, and it has literally been designed to provide human-scaled opportunities for action. The fit is closer and more reliably so. We typically don’t build complicated action spaces, at least on purpose (of course with any design process, there is the possibility of bad design and that certainly happens more often than it should). 

While it’s nice to be able to count on the floor, this design philosophy creates a level of disengagement; I don’t need to remain embedded in the moment and I can read my phone, listen to music, or talk to a friend. 

And it seems that this has consequences on our psychological well-being. 


  1. Thought-provoking, thanks — i think it could be interesting to use these ideas to think about how information technologies affect our experience of either type of environment. The very fact of having access to a mobile phone or an internet connection adds affordances to whatever environment we’re in: the possibilities of communication or access to information (mediated by apps, devices and their interfaces). The limitlessness of these possibilities is perhaps what makes such technologies so ‘distracting’!

    1. You might like Andrew Hinton's book Understanding Context. Full disclosure; we talked him into some stuff :)

    2. I'll check it out, thanks!