The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions

The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions

by Winifred Gallagher
Are New Yorkers and Californians so different because they live in such different settings? Why do some of us prefer the city to the country? How do urban settings increase crime? Why do we feel better after an experience in nature?

In this fascinating and enormously entertaining book, Winifred Gallagher explores the complex relationships between people and the


Are New Yorkers and Californians so different because they live in such different settings? Why do some of us prefer the city to the country? How do urban settings increase crime? Why do we feel better after an experience in nature?

In this fascinating and enormously entertaining book, Winifred Gallagher explores the complex relationships between people and the places in which they live, love, and work. Drawing on the latest research on behavioral and environmental science, The Power of Place examines our reactions to light, temperature, the seasons, and other natural phenomena and explores the interactions between our external and internal worlds.

Gallagher's broad and dynamic definition of place includes mountaintops and the womb, Alaska's hinterlands and Manhattan's subway, and she relates these settings to everything from creativity to PMS, jet lag to tales of UFOs.

Full of complex information made totally accessible, The Power of Place offers the latest insights into the any ways we can change our lives by changing the places we live.

Author Biography:

Winifred Gallagher is an award-winning journalist whose stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Discover, The Sciences, and other magazines. She lives in Manhattan and Long Eddy, New York.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this intriguing but somewhat diffuse look at the impact of physical surroundings on individual behavior, freelance journalist Gallagher ranges from wintry Alaska to a neonatal intensive care unit to diverse neighborhoods in Manhattan. Drawing on interviews with scientists as well as her own observations, she shows that academia has promoted a ``false dichotomy'' between the influences of biology and of environment. For example, Eskimos may have genetically eliminated seasonal mood disorders from their gene pool. And to overcome grief or kick drug addictions, people require new stimuli and ``environmental deconditioning.'' Inner-city residents, having invested their neighborhoods with hope, often resist being moved from what others would consider a slum, the author notes. She also looks skeptically at such folk wisdom as the purported role of hot weather in fostering crime and romance. QPB alternate. (Mar.)
Donna Seaman
There's nothing more fascinating than explanations for our often puzzling behavior, but physiological theories are particularly compelling. Gallagher presents an excellent synthesis of the current research about our interaction with our environment and the strong connection between physiological and psychological responses. Through a myriad of vivid examples, Gallagher describes how certain environmental factors, including light, temperature variance, noise, and electromagnetic fields, relate to moodiness, fatigue, creativity, allergies, and mother-infant bonds. Her broad and dynamic definition of place includes mountaintops and the womb, Alaska's hinterlands and city streets. A discussion of the ways people adapt to climatic extremes leads to an analysis of how urbanization has weakened our connection to the natural rhythms of dark and light and the cycle of the seasons. These fluctuations regulate the pineal gland, which, in turn, controls a number of key physical and emotional processes. Gallagher also summarizes some engrossing theories about the physical reality behind perceived phenomena such as a sense of sacredness in certain geographical locations or the experiences associated with UFO sightings. An entertaining and convincing look at the role of place in activities as miraculous as the development of sensory and cognitive abilities and as prosaic as struggling out of bed on a dark winter morning.
An exploration of how people's surroundings affect them, and vice versa, such as the health effects of living indoors, the use of sacred places, the emotional aspects of social relations, and the environmental movement. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Product Details

Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


Last spring, I spent several days sealed off from the sweet palmy swelter of New Orleans in a series of frigid polyester conference rooms, listening to men in white coats discuss the latest developments in brain science. Weary of sci-fi scanning techniques and neurotransmitter balances, I treated myself to a lecture by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago best known for his. improbable best-seller, Flow; despite its easygoing title, this rather difficult, scholarly book methodically explores the parameters of what the author terms "optimum experience" and the rest of us call a good time. As I had hoped, Csikszentmihalyi was not concerned with the workings of pills or the measurement of rats, and his introductory remarks, which centered on his earliest forays into his chosen area of inquiry, went straight for the jugular of behavioral science. "As a small child, I wondered why most of the otherwise knowledgeable, accomplished adults who surrounded me seemed to have almost no idea about how to live a satisfying life," he said. "It was clear to me even then that the answer wasn't money or power but, somehow, the ability to control and enjoy one's experience."

A bit of unaccustomed reflection on one dimension of our experience suggests that the answer to that perennial child's questionIf grown-ups know so much, why aren't they' happy?--is increasingly bound up with the places in which we spend our lives. Many ,of the eclectic researches that support this commonsensical idea are less discoveries than rediscoveries of principles that our forebears consideredobvious. Throughout history, . people of all cultures have assumed that environment influences behavior. Now modem science is confirming that our actions, thoughts, and feelings are indeed shaped not just by our genes and neurochemistry, history and relationships, but also by our surroundings.

More than two thousand years, ago, Hippocrates' observation that our well-being is affected by our settings was established as a cornerstone of Western medicine. The healers of antiquity had no idea that the malaria parasite is carried by mosquitoes, but they noted that the residents of hill towns were healthier than those from marshy regions, and concluded that the- problem was the "bad air"--maI aria--of such places. Of all the environmental influences on a person's state, however, "it is chiefly the changes of seasons which produce diseases, and in the seasons the great changes from cold or heat," wrote the father of medicine, adding that "Such diseases as increase in the winter ought to cease in the summer, and such, as increase in ,the summer ought to cease in the winter . . . ."

The centuries. of literature on the relationship between, mood and the seasons, comprise a striking testimony to science's venerable association of behavior and environment: One of the most fundamental and enduring principles of classical medicine,positively encouraged analogies, between our internal and external, climates. Physicians believed that, the action of the four humors, or body fluids, determined everything from a person's constitution to his character. Because the balances of yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood, which corresponded to the four elements of fire, earth; water, and air, were also related to summer, fall, winter, and spring, an individual's physiological and behavioral changes were inevitably viewed in the context of  the sun's. In the second century A..D., Aretaeus' prescribed that "Lethargics are to be laid in, the light and, exposed to the rays of the sun, for the disease is gloom"; in the fourth century, Posidonius observed: "Melancholy occurs in autumn, whereas mania in summer."

 Classical science's propensity for viewing a person's state in its environmental context persisted down through the ages. In the seventeenth century, the English scholar Robert Burton, who suffered from, bipolar disorder; in which profound depressions alternate with chaotic bursts of mania, compiled his exhaustive Anatomy of Melancholy: This text includes some, stereotypical assumptions about (climate and national as well as individual temperament that remain commonplace: "Hot countries are most troubled with . . . great ,numbers of madmen . . . . They are ordinarily so choleric in their speeches, that scarce two words pass without railing or chiding in common talk, and often quarreling in their streets .... Cold air in the other extreme is almost as bad. as hot. ., . . In those northern countries, the people are therefore generally dull; heavy, and [in'clude) many witches, which [some] ascribe to melancholy." Two ,hundred years later, this tendency to see connections between behavior and its setting still prevailed among the first practitioners of the infant science of psychiatry.

Around the turn of the twentieth century; the wisdom of the ages concerning the. relationship between place and state was eclipsed by technological and cultural changes so rapid and vast that social scientists still debate our ability to adjust to them: In one of the least remarked of these transformations, the Industrial Revolution drew the West indoors. Turning away from the natural world, huge populations gravitated toward a very different one made up of homes and workplaces that were warm and illuminated regardless of season or time of the day-although even on a rainy morning, it is brighter outside than inside with the lights on.

Society quickly adapted to its new indoor urban environment. Only a hundred years ago, the overwhelming majority of Americans lived in the country, while today, most cluster in metropolitan areas. Like other living things, however, our species has evolved over millions of years to respond to the cycles of the earth and sun with predictable biochemical and behavioral changes. Environmentally minded scientists have begun to question the trade-offs we unwittingly make in order to live sealed up inside an artificially heated, cooled, and lighted world that is structured around economic rather than biologic concerns.

What People are saying about this

Jim Harrison
"It is a brand new vision of how we are affected by how and where we live. A wonderful book."
Tim Cahill
Got some problems? Think that moving to a more compatible place is running away? Read this intriguing and well-researched book...
— Tim Cahill, author of Pecked to Death by Ducks

Meet the Author

Winifred Gallagher is the author of House Thinking, Just the Way You Are (a New York Times Notable Book), Working on God, and Spiritual Genius. She has written for numerous publications, including Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. She lives in Manhattan and Dubois, Wyoming.

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