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  • Foto van schrijverPieter Derycke

Hanging and the environment - part 2 - environmental enrichment

(before we start, this post will not really be about hanging and climbing. Hanging will only be the example to take on the discussion about environmental enrichment)

Music for today: ”And it stoned me”  (Van Morrison)

In part 1 I told the story about my son Aster being a good hanger and climber (actually, all three of my children are quite good at it, see picture). The only reason for this is the availability of things to hang and climb on. My wife and I have created multiple hanging and climbing opportunities. We have changed our environment to change our behaviour. In this blog, I will elaborate on these environmental effects on our behaviour. The thesis is that an environment with movement opportunities creates more movement, spontaneously, voluntarily, without effort, without willpower, without a strict regimen, and, dare I say it, naturally…

Basically, we are speaking about environmental enrichment (EE). This can mean two (related) things:

1/ “EE, also called behavioral enrichment, is an animal husbandry principle that seeks to enhance the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being. The goal of environmental enrichment is to improve or maintain an animal’s physical and psychological health by increasing the range or number of species-specific behaviors, increasing positive utilization of the captive environment, preventing or reducing the frequency of abnormal behaviors such as stereotypies, and increasing the individual’s ability to cope with the challenges of captivity.” (from Wikipedia)

Think about a zoo trying to enhance the wellbeing of the animals by enhancing their environment. Also, in the text above, replace ‘animal’ with ‘human animal’ for an interesting perspective. Reminds me of the wonderful little book by Desmond Morris: ‘The Human Zoo’.

2/ “EE is the stimulation of the brain by its physical and social surroundings. Brains in richer, more stimulating environments have higher rates of synaptogenesis and more complex dendrite arbors, leading to increased brain activity. This effect takes place primarily during neurodevelopment, but also during adulthood to a lesser degree.” (from Wikipedia) “In EE, the housing environment is modified by providing a larger enclosure, natural bedding and a variety of novel objects, in the expectation that this will promote greater physical activity in exploration and interaction with a novel and complex environment.”

That last part, emphasised, is why I want to talk about EE. Enriched environments promote greater physical activity, more exploration and more interaction. At least, that is the expectation.

The picture below is basically what point 2 is about:

Let’s take a look at another picture from an EE study:

Something you notice? Something that you, as a person interested in movement, find striking? These rats have an indoor parkour/gym/circus facility! Is it a coincidence that an EE for rats is mainly a improvement in movement options? I don’t think so.

I you know the primary reason for having a brain is movement, it seems logical that creating various movement opportunities results in a better brain.

But EE is more complex. There is also a social environment to consider:

“The standard definition of an enriched environment is “a combination of complex inanimate and social stimulation”. This definition implies that the relevance of single contributing factors cannot be easily isolated but there are good reasons to assume that it is the interaction of factors that is an essential element of an enriched environment, not any single element that is hidden in the complexity.”

“Enhanced physical activity an enhanced social interaction each provide benefits to the brain; physical activity on its own improves cognitive performance in parallel with a range of neural changes including enhance neurogenesis and increased levels of neurothophic growth factors and increased neurotransmitter subunit expression, while social enrichment on its own has been shown to result in an increase in brain weight. When the two are combined in an appropriately enriched environment, a much more extensive set of cerebral changes occurs.”

So EE is about physical and social enrichment, and the complex interactions between these two factors. Again, not a big surprise. Meaningful physical activity and real social interaction have consistently been shown to enhance one’s wellbeing. The nice thing is, that just providing the environment, stimulates the laboratory animals to move, to explore, to interact, and have all the benefits.

If you take an evolutionary view, these environmental enrichments are actually enrichments from a poor and deprived baseline up to a normal and natural level. This is a fact that researchers also acknowledge.

“This finding underscores the possibility that experimental enrichment is a reversal of the impoverishment generally found in the laboratory setting rather than an enrichment over a natural setting. The potential contributions of isolation on the one hand and overcrowding on the other have been described as follows: “taken together, the isolation and overcrowding studies suggest that normal brain and behavior development depends upon an optimal, rather than a maximal level of environmental stimulation. The degree to which deviations from this optimum affect the organism through stress and through diminished sensorimotor stimulation (and indeed the degree to which these are independent) has not been determined.”

(My emphasis of optimal, rather than a maximal level” will be something to come back to in part 4 of this series (on the use of ‘via negativa’))

A natural environment is regarded as optimal. In human animals, a natural environment is known to promote an active lifestyle (see pdf)

So, an enriched environment creates opportunities. Changing your environment, or choosing your environment wisely will create possibilities. In our story, it will increase the possibilities of movement, it will augment the movement variability, and the movements will be more fun!

An enriched environment creates movement opportunities, and in my experience, for children (at least most of them) these possibilities are automatically used in their play, exploration, experimentation, and interactions. But for most adults, my experience is that they need just a bit more than that. They need a bit of extra motivation: they need a reason to move, explore, and play. Because there is no immediate biological need that obliges adults to hang, swing and climb (no extrinsic motivation).

To recapitulate, an enriched environment optimally simulates the species-specific natural environment, both physically and socially (and probably in other aspects too). It spontaneously stimulates physical activity (and social interaction), and thus enhances the health and wellbeing of the animal.

It’s up to you, intelligent reader, to draw your own conclusions…

I’d like to end this blog with the following picture, found on the movement culture group:

In the next parts, I will talk about ‘Parkour vision’, ‘via negativa’ and try to give you some intrinsic motivation for hanging and climbing.

Thanks for reading,


PS: I would like to link to my sources for the quotes, but since yesterday my computer crashed (aaaargh!!), I have no more access to the papers and websites… Still, there’s plenty of free scientific literature on EE for the interested reader, only a google-search away…


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