Ecological Psychology Through the Lens of Somatic Psychotherapy

Child holds a huge head of broccoli

On the Path of Discovery: Exploring Ecological Psychology in a Diverse World

In my quest to understand the human mind and behaviour from a perspective that transcends the limits of traditional Eurocentric models, I’ve encountered a compelling field of study—ecological psychology. As a psychotherapist focusing on somatic approaches, the principles of ecological psychology have sparked a unique curiosity in me. This paradigm views cognition not as an isolated process but as one deeply interwoven with our environment.

This perspective is especially intriguing when considering the potential intersections with indigenous teachings and traditional ways of knowing. Ecological psychology’s holistic viewpoint resonates with the wisdom of indigenous cultures, which often emphasize the interconnectedness of all beings with the environment.

However, as we venture into this exploration, a sense of caution and respect becomes paramount. The aim is not to appropriate indigenous knowledge but to learn from it, acknowledging its roots and honouring its cultural significance. I am committed to undertaking this journey with due diligence and maintaining transparency about the origins of the teachings that inform our understanding.

I’ve found striking parallels between somatic and ecological psychology in my practice. Both approaches recognize the holistic nature of human experience and integrate physical embodiment and the environment into understanding mental processes. I’m excited to delve deeper into this intersection and find a way of working that’s holistic, inclusive, and true to its diverse roots.

So, let’s embark on this exciting journey of discovery. Let’s stay open and curious about how ecological psychology can enlighten us about our interconnectedness with the world. In doing so, we can deepen our understanding of cognition and behaviour in a way that truly honours the richness and diversity of human experiences.

Unveiling the Magic of Ecological Psychology: An Enlightening Journey Begins

In this blog post, I’m introducing you to a field of psychology that you might not have heard of before but could offer you a fresh perspective on understanding your mental health. This approach is known as ecological psychology.

You might ask, “What is ecological psychology, and why does it matter to me?” Well, ecological psychology is all about understanding how you, as an individual, interact with your surroundings. So it’s not just about what’s happening in your mind but also about how your environment influences your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

Developed by pioneering psychologists J. J. Gibson and E. J. Gibson, ecological psychology offers a unique viewpoint that challenges some traditional approaches in psychology. Rather than viewing the mind as a separate entity, like a computer processing information, ecological psychology sees it as profoundly intertwined with our physical and social world.

In the following sections, I’ll unpack this more and delve into the key concepts of ecological psychology. Then, I’ll compare it to other psychological approaches, discuss its similarities with somatic psychology (which is all about the mind-body connection), and explore how these insights can be applied in therapy to support your mental health.

So, whether you’re just curious about psychology or actively seeking new ways to understand and improve your mental health, this exploration of ecological psychology will offer you some valuable insights. Let’s begin.

The Intriguing Story of Ecological Psychology: Discovering the Gibsons’ Legacy

et’s start with a bit of history. Ecological psychology, also called environmental psychology, emerged in the mid-20th century, primarily due to the pioneering work of psychologist James J. Gibson and his wife, Eleanor J. Gibson. Their work revolutionized our understanding of how individuals interact with their environment, forming the foundation of what we now know as ecological psychology.

James Gibson introduced a groundbreaking concept called “affordances”. In simple terms, affordances are possibilities for action that the environment offers us. Think about it this way: when you see a chair, you intuitively understand that you can sit on it. Similarly, when you see a ball, you know that you can throw it. These actions are not determined by complex cognitive processing or internal mental representations but are directly perceivable possibilities the objects offer. This is the essence of the concept of affordances.

The idea of affordances leads us to one of the central themes in ecological psychology – the perception of the world around us. Ecological psychology challenges the traditional cognitive view that perceives our mind as a complex computer processing environmental inputs and creating internal representations of the world. Instead, it proposes that we directly perceive information about the world as it is without the need for such internal representation.

“Ask not what’s inside your head, but what your head’s inside of.” —James J. Gibson

This means that your cognition—your thoughts, perceptions, and behaviours—is not a purely internal process. Instead, it’s deeply intertwined with your interaction with your environment. This perspective shifts our understanding from the mind as an isolated entity to the mind as a part of the environment, continuously interacting with and being influenced by it.

In the next section, I’ll discuss how this approach contrasts with other psychological theories and aligns with somatic psychology, which also emphasizes the mind-body-environment relationship. But before we move on, consider how this perspective might apply to your experiences. You might see your environment and your relationship with it differently.

Beyond Eurocentric Views: How Ecological Psychology Carves Its Unique Path

To better understand ecological psychology, it’s helpful to compare it with two other major psychological theories: cognitivism and behaviourism.

Cognitivism, which rose to prominence in the mid-20th century, focuses on internal mental processes like memory, perception, and problem-solving. It often compares the mind to a computer, processing inputs (information from our senses) and generating outputs (actions and decisions). In this view, our understanding of the world reflects complex cognitive processes that create mental representations of our environment.

On the other hand, behaviourism, which was popular in the early 20th century, largely ignores these internal processes. Instead, it focuses on observable behaviour and how environmental stimuli influence it. Behaviourists argue that our responses to stimuli in our environment shape our actions.

“We must perceive in order to move, but we must also move in order to perceive.” —James J. Gibson

Here’s where ecological psychology offers a unique “third way”. It suggests that cognition isn’t just an internal process (as in cognitivism) nor purely a response to stimuli (as in behaviourism). Instead, it’s a complex interaction between you and your environment. Moreover, this interaction is embodied and situated, meaning your thoughts and behaviours are inseparable from the physical and social contexts in which they occur.

The Perfect Harmony: Merging Somatic Psychology with Ecological Perspectives

Now, let’s bring somatic psychology into the picture. Somatic psychology is an approach that emphasizes the critical role of the body in our psychological experiences. It focuses on the relationship between the mind and body, examining how physical sensations and movements influence our mental states.

Just like ecological psychology, somatic psychology views you as a whole. It doesn’t separate your cognitive processes from your physical existence but sees them as profoundly interconnected.

There are several fundamental principles that somatic and ecological psychology share:

  • Embodiment: Both approaches emphasize the body’s crucial role in our experiences. While somatic psychology directly explores how bodily sensations influence our mental states, ecological psychology underlines the embodied nature of cognition—our thoughts and actions are tied to our physical presence in the world.
  • Environment: Both disciplines recognize that the environment significantly shapes our behaviour and experiences. While ecological psychology focuses on how our cognition interplays with the environment, somatic psychology acknowledges that our bodily experiences—and thus, our mental states—are influenced by environmental factors.
  • Direct Perception: Ecological psychology proposes that we directly perceive the world around us, without the need for internal mental representations—a notion that aligns with the somatic emphasis on direct bodily awareness and sensory experience.

    “Perceptual learning is self-regulated, not imposed from without” —Eleanor J. Gibson

  • Holistic Approach: Both ecological and somatic psychology take a holistic approach to human behaviour and experience, considering the interactions between physical sensations, environmental influences, and cognitive processes, rather than reducing behaviour to isolated components.
  • Mind-Body Connection: Both disciplines acknowledge the inseparability of mind and body. Somatic psychology directly addresses this connection, while ecological psychology, though not focusing specifically on the body, recognizes that cognition isn’t a purely mental process but is rooted in our physical interactions with the environment.

The shared understanding of cognition as an embodied, situated process makes these two approaches not just compatible, but mutually enriching. As we move on to explore their therapeutic applications, you’ll see how this understanding can help create more effective strategies for improving mental health.

Therapy Reinvented: The Fusion of Somatic and Ecological Approaches

Regarding therapy, somatic and ecological psychology offer rich perspectives that can enhance the therapeutic process. By considering the mind, body, and environment, we can develop a more comprehensive understanding of a person’s experiences and challenges.

Somatic psychology, for example, often involves body-oriented therapeutic techniques. These can range from practices that increase awareness of physical sensations, to movement-based therapies, to breathwork. By connecting with the body, individuals can access emotions or memories that may not be readily accessible through traditional talk therapy. This mind-body approach can help individuals process these experiences in a more integrated way.

Ecological psychology, on the other hand, emphasizes the person-environment interaction. By considering how an individual’s environment may be impacting their mental health, therapists can work with clients to identify and modify environmental factors that could be contributing to their distress. The setting, in this context, can include physical spaces (like a person’s home or workplace) and social and cultural environments.

Transforming Therapy: Practical Strategies to Incorporate Ecological Psychology

So how do we integrate these insights from ecological psychology into psychotherapy? Let’s delve into some potential strategies:

  • Understanding the Environment: As a therapist, I would take into account how your environment may be impacting your mental health. We would work together to identify environmental factors that may be contributing to your distress and explore possible strategies for addressing these.
  • Exploring Affordances: The concept of affordances can be used to help you see new possibilities in your environment. For example, if you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed, we might explore the actions that your environment affords—or makes possible—for coping or creating change.
  • Promoting Direct Engagement: I would encourage you to engage directly with your environment. This could involve mindfulness exercises that bring your attention to the present moment, physical activities that connect you with your surroundings, or practices that help you perceive and interact with your environment in new ways.
  • Environmental Modifications: If your environment is causing distress or hindering your progress, we could explore possible modifications. This might involve making changes to your physical space, or it could involve strategies for navigating challenging social or cultural environments.
  • Adopting a Holistic Approach: An ecological perspective encourages us to see you as a whole, taking into account not just your thoughts and emotions, but also your physical environment and your interactions with it. This holistic view can lead to a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of your experiences.
  • Encouraging Physical Activity: Physical activity can serve as a form of ’embodied cognition’, helping you to process emotions or problems while engaging with your environment. I might encourage you to engage in physical activities that you enjoy and that connect you with your surroundings.
  • Utilizing Outdoor Therapy: Depending on your comfort and interest, we might even consider outdoor therapy. Sessions in natural settings can provide a unique context for exploring your relationship with your environment, and research suggests that exposure to nature can have various mental health benefits.

Remember, these are potential strategies that would be tailored to your needs and circumstances. The overall goal would be to help you better understand and navigate your relationship with your environment, and to use this understanding to promote your mental health and well-being.

Bridging Ecological Psychology and Traditional Forms of Knowing

As we traverse this journey of understanding, it’s worth exploring some broad parallels between ecological psychology and traditional indigenous ways of knowing. While these connections are fascinating, they are shared with respect and acknowledgement of the unique wisdom and rich cultural heritage of indigenous teachings.

Interwoven with the Environment

A fundamental similarity lies in the perception of humans and their environment. Both ecological psychology and indigenous teachings emphasize the deep interconnectedness of individuals with their surroundings. We aren’t detached observers of our world; we are active participants, intricately woven into the environmental tapestry.

A Holistic Perspective

The holistic approach is another shared principle. Ecological psychology and indigenous wisdom both propose a comprehensive view of human existence, understanding individuals as integral parts of larger physical, mental, and spiritual systems. They discourage the compartmentalization of human experiences, instead favoring a more interconnected understanding.

The Power of Direct Perception

Ecological psychology’s idea of ‘affordances’ resonates with aspects of indigenous teachings. The notion that our environment offers opportunities for direct action mirrors the indigenous emphasis on experiential learning and immediate interaction with our surroundings. This shared perspective underscores the importance of direct perception in shaping our understanding of the world.

Celebrating Diversity and Complexity

Both perspectives celebrate the diversity and complexity of human experiences and environmental contexts. They recognize that human experiences are unique, shaped by a myriad of cultural, social, and environmental factors. The understanding that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach is deeply ingrained in both.

Embodiment as Key

Lastly, the importance of embodiment is a shared belief. Indigenous teachings often stress the wisdom of the body and its responses, similar to ecological psychology’s view of cognition as an embodied process. This shared understanding foregrounds the body’s role in how we interact with and comprehend our world.

As we explore these parallels, we should remember that these are broad observations. There is considerable variation among different indigenous cultures and teachings. Each comparison should be undertaken with reverence and sensitivity, recognizing the profound wisdom and historical context of indigenous teachings.

Ecological Psychology’s Shortcomings in Diversity and Inclusion

Ecological psychology has made significant strides in understanding the relationship between organisms and their surroundings. It’s a perspective that offers profound insights into the ways we interact with the world. Yet, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, this approach reveals certain limitations.

The Issue of Socio-Cultural Norms

One of the most compelling aspects of ecological psychology is the notion of “direct perception” – that we perceive opportunities for action (or affordances) in our environment without the need for inferences or mental representations. This concept has greatly enriched our understanding of cognition, but it falls short when we consider the influence of sociocultural norms.

These norms significantly shape our perceptions and actions, yet they are not readily specified in the perceptual information we encounter. For instance, how we perceive and interact with a public space may be influenced not just by physical attributes such as the presence of benches or the arrangement of paths, but also by social norms around who typically uses the space and for what purposes. This socio-cultural dimension is not easily accounted for within the existing framework of ecological psychology.

When Direct Perception Meets Social Norms

Some researchers have proposed that these norms are represented within our minds and used to infer what the situation affords from a socio-normative perspective. However, this idea contradicts the principle of direct perception. As it stands, ecological psychology has yet to provide a satisfactory answer to this conundrum.

Towards an Inclusive Perspective

Addressing this issue requires an expanded understanding of ecological psychology—one that recognizes and incorporates the impact of socio-cultural norms on our perception of affordances. Furthermore, it necessitates an increased focus on diversity and inclusion. Not all sociocultural norms are universal; they can vary widely across different cultures and communities. An inclusive approach to ecological psychology must consider this diversity of experiences and perspectives.

Embracing the Challenge

To move forward, we must strive to develop new theoretical frameworks and research methods that can capture the complexity of sociocultural influences on perception. This task is undoubtedly challenging, but it also presents an exciting opportunity for growth and discovery in the field.

In practical terms, as a therapist, I have a responsibility to be mindful of the socio-cultural contexts that shape my clients’ experiences. Recognizing and validating the influence of these norms can lead to a more holistic, inclusive, and culturally sensitive approach to therapy.

In sum, while ecological psychology has provided a valuable perspective on cognition and behaviour, it’s clear there’s more work to be done. By acknowledging and addressing these shortcomings, we can contribute to the evolution of a truly inclusive ecological psychology—a perspective that appreciates not just how we interact with our physical environment, but also how we navigate the rich tapestry of socio-cultural norms that shape our world.

Wrapping Up: Towards an Inclusive and Holistic Psychotherapy

In this exploration, we’ve journeyed through the fascinating domain of ecological psychology, acknowledging its roots in the groundbreaking work of J. J. Gibson and E. J. Gibson. The concept of affordances and the way ecological psychology positions cognition as an embodied, situated process inextricably linked with our environment have been key highlights.

In contrast to cognitivism and behaviourism, ecological psychology has emerged as a distinctive “third way”, offering a perspective that aligns closely with the principles of somatic psychology. Both these approaches view the individual as a whole and accentuate the importance of the environment, direct perception, a holistic approach, and the mind-body connection.

But we also confronted the limitations of ecological psychology, particularly its inability to effectively incorporate socio-cultural norms in its understanding of perception and action. In this, we find a compelling challenge – to expand our perspectives, to strive for a more inclusive and culturally sensitive understanding of cognition and the human experience.

Therapeutically, the integration of these insights offers a range of strategies. From understanding the environmental influences on mental health, exploring affordances, promoting direct engagement with the environment, making environmental modifications, adopting a holistic approach, encouraging physical activity, to considering the benefits of outdoor therapy – the possibilities are wide-ranging.

As a psychotherapist, the journey doesn’t stop here. The next step is to bring these insights into the therapy room, to provide a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of my clients. To not only acknowledge the unity of mind, body, and environment but to also ensure that their socio-cultural contexts are respected and understood. This is the promise and potential of truly inclusive, holistic psychotherapy.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre manages a group practice of three close-knit queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.