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The Power of Place & Why We Get Homesick

In mythology, film, literature, and daily living, setting is important: Zeus on Mt. Olympus, Poseidon in the sea, Hades in the underworld, Artemis in the forest, and Hestia at the hearth inside the temple.  In film, as in literature and in daily life, the words “don’t move”, when uttered in a doctors’ office versus in a jungle, or on stage, or in a dark deserted alleyway, conjure different meanings because of the setting.  Being in a basement or a ballroom, a church or a courtroom, a library or a subway station, has its own distinct effect on a person.  Setting signal behaviors, imparts information about the users or occupants, invites our projections and imaginings, stirs our feelings, and engages our unconscious.

​Settings and the Gods
The ancient Romans paid a great deal of attention to setting.  When entering a setting, one might pass through a vestibule, (named for the Roman Goddess Vesta, whose Greek counterpart was Hestia, keeper of the hearth, or “focus” in Latin), and pass three different gods of the doorway (the door, the threshold, and the hinges).  These gods prevented bad luck from entering the ancient home. Juno (or Hera in Greece) oversaw the “psychic and material well-being of the household.”


What gives a place its identity, its persona?

What is a place?  What gives a place its identity, its persona?  These questions occurred to the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg when they visited Kronberg Castle in Denmark. Bohr said to Heisenberg:
“Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here?  As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together.  The stones, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed the by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely” (Tuan,Y., Space and Place: the perspective of experience, 2002).

​We have never been separate from our setting:
In the Handbook of Environmental Psychology, Brian R. Little (1987), author of the “Personality and Environment” chapter, notes “The interdependence of human personality and the surrounding milieu is so complete that human thought about environment was most likely coterminous with the emergence of consciousness.”

​Setting has a “major claim on behavior”:
“In contrast to perspectives that assumed that the major causal influences on behavior were endogenous to the organism (e.g., motivational state, perceptual set), Barker insisted that the behavior setting itself has a “claim” on the individual that deserved serious psychological examination”
(Little, B., Personality and Environment, 1987).

​People respond immediately and unconsciously to an environment:
“When people encounter an environment, they respond immediately and unconsciously to its rather general features” (Zajonc 1980; Ulrich 1983; Orians and Heerwagen, Journal of Cultural Geography, 1992).

Our setting displays our image and teaches us back:
Objects, like people, come in and out of our lives and awareness, not in some random, meaningless pattern ordained by Fate, but in a clearly patterned framework that sets the stage for greater and greater self-understanding. In our own lives, we select the sets and props of different “acts” (or periods of life) in order often unconsciously to display images of ourselves and to learn by reflection of the environment around us” (Cooper Marcus, C., House as Mirror of Self: exploring the deeper meaning of home, 1995).

​Physical environment reinforces who we are:
“…we hypothesize that individuals also select and craft physical environments that reflect and reinforce who they are” (Gosling, S., Sei, J., Mannarelli, T., Sapient, M., Journal of Personality and Social Pathology, 2002).

Notice where you sit when you’re working and what you’re surrounded by. What is it reminding you about you? As you move through your home, look at what’s on the walls, the shelves, on the floors and ask how that reinforces your sense of who you. If your setting isn’t enabling you to be the you want to be, it’s time to make some changes to your setting right away!

Once a child is born and begins to ‘behave’ in his new environment, some of the connections between neuronal groups are strengthened and some are weakened.  These new formations create a set of groups called the ’secondary repertoire’ that is now prepared to respond to future behavior.

Eventually the groups in this secondary repertoire are called into action by a behavior.  When we ‘reenter’ the groups into memory they are modified by how they have been used.  Those groups that lead behavior into results that are satisfying are ’stamped’ into our nervous system, while those resulting in pain or discomfort are erased.

Each time we experience a similar behavior these associated neuronal groups are recalled from memory and reentered after use.  The more often this reinforcement occurs, the more rapid is our brains response and the more vivid is the experience.  That’s why our memory of ‘home’ become so well implanted that we are literally ‘home sick’ when we fail to stimulate the neuronal group associated with home.

© 2022 Katherine G. Morris  

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