The Wilderness Effect, Embodied Situation Cognition, and the Enactive Process Model

Paradoxically perhaps, the wilderness effect does not require true wilderness to work its magic. Given that it works very powerfully on UK protest sites, it seems likely that it has the potential to catalyse profound transformation in the wider community. Greenway’s evocative phrase that “civilization is only four days deep” (Greenway, 1995: 129) comes back to me, and I suspect it is even more fragile than that: removing just some of the trappings of the 21st Century can profoundly shift our awareness. My PhD research found that urban Eco-Pagans – who do not live on protest sites – developed a way of relating to the essence of sacred nature which functioned in a similar way to the wilderness effect. Over time, Eco- Paganism enhanced the urban practitioner’s embodied awareness: urban Eco- Pagans learnt to become aware of how we think with and through the embodied situated self, and thus enhanced their embodied communion with places, flora, fauna. As well as being profoundly healing, these intimate local relationships patterned a sacred relationship to the world (Harris, 2008).

When Merleau-Ponty articulated the phenomenology of the embodied mind he concluded that in knowing the world we become part of it, and thus the conventional subject-object distinction was illusionary. Abram applies Merleau- Ponty’s work to develop an embodied environmental philosophy which understands the body as “a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth” (Abram, 1996: 62). Thus the immediate environment that meshes with our thinking and perception is participatory in that it always involves “the experience of an active interplay, or coupling, between the perceiving body and that which it perceives” (Abram, 1996: 57).

Certain circumstances and techniques allow our normally shallow conscious to deepen, enabling us to become more aware of the blurred boundary between self and world. This process can be illustrated using the cognitive iceberg diagram. Most of the time we are unaware of the deeper processes of ESC: as shown in figure 1, our consciousness is focused at the narrow tip of the iceberg. But at other times our normally shallow awareness begins to slide down the cognitive iceberg into the deep body, sometimes bringing a sense of expansion and a blurring of the boundaries between self and world.

It is this slide down the cognitive iceberg that – at least partly – explains the power of the wilderness effect. As Greenway and others have noted, the wilderness effect brings “a shift from culturally reinforced, dualism-producing reality processing to a more nondualistic mode” (Greenway 1995: 131). Although “consciousness remains”, it is no longer dominated by “the need-crazed egoic process (especially the making of distinctions)”. What remains is “a simpler, ‘nonegoic’ awareness” which can “open consciousness … to the more natural flows of information from nature” (Greenway 1995: 132). This is exactly what we see on the enactive process model: when our awareness slides down into the deep body, consciousness remains but we can sense that the “organism and environment enfold into each other and unfold from one another in the fundamental circularity that is life itself” (Varela et al., 1991: 150).

The enactive process model model helps explain how spending time in the organic environment can lead to a profound awareness of the fundamental connection between what we conventionally perceive as self and world. This shift in awareness underpins many aspects of the wilderness effect, notably the “shift from culturally reinforced, dualism-producing reality processing to a more nondualistic mode.” (Greenway 1995: 131).

The implications of this research for ecopsychology are two-fold: first, the influence of the wilderness effect is far more widespread than previously thought; second, my enactive process model contributes to the theoretical underpinning for this evolving discipline. Given that the wilderness effect has a powerful and largely beneficial affect, we would do well to encourage its influence; by applying the insights offered in this article we can do just that.


(Taken from Adrian Harris’ The Power of Place: Protest Site Pagans; European Journal of Ecopsychology 2: 1-27 (2011))


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