Pet algae balls, biophilia, and technostress: Healing our minds and bodies through connection to the natural world

I had seen one a few years ago in my sister-in-law’s kitchen: a teeny green ball in a bottle with pink aquarium gravel. Intrigued, I asked her what it was. She said it was some kind of plant that her sister had given to her.

A few years later, I stumbled into it on my Facebook feed: the marimo. A spherical scrap of cuteness that took over my mind like a virus. For the rest of the day, I was furiously Googling, Etsying, Amazoning, anything to see where I could get the most marimo for my buck.

“What the heck is a marimo and why are you so obsessed with it?” you might be asking. Well, brace yourself, because you cannot unsee what you are about to see:

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SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

This, my friends, is a Japanese algae ball (sometimes incorrectly called a moss-ball), known adorably as a marimo. They are native to the freshwater lakes of Hokkaido, but most of the ones you can buy online now are cultivated elsewhere.

Requiring very little care, these plant “pets” that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book can live for decades, sharing aquarium space amiably with other creatures, or living alone accompanied by some tasteful gravel and waterproof accessories (for which I was also furiously scouring the internet).

I showed this exact picture to two other friends in the coming days, and both had the same reaction as me:

  1. AAAAAH!  SQUEEEE!
  2. (Scrunching fingers in a vain attempt to pinch the marimo)
  3. Where can I get one? Or two? Or LITERALLY ALL OF THEM?

I thought a little bit about why I had been so captivated by this benign little plant that is soon to take over every available horizontal space in my life, and I think I know why.

One superficial answer comes from neoteny, or the preservation of juvenile features into adulthood.  We perceive people with childlike physical characteristics as cuter, more appealing, and more innocent than those with more adult like features (as described by Deirdre Barrett in Supernormal Stimuli).  Although I could be using the term wrong, I extrapolate neoteny to mean that we also find certain appealing objects cute because they resemble infant creatures. Smallness, roundness, and softness are qualities of infant mammals, which also have larger, rounder heads in comparison to their bodies than do their grown-up selves.  The marimo aggregates all of these neotenous qualities, reminding one of a baby hamster (okay, a green one), curled up tightly for a little nap, or a cute, round baby face, with cheeks just demanding to be pinched.  Tribbles (a species of sentient fuzzballs from Star Trek) are also cute for this reason, mesmerizingly so, with their added traits of purring and cooing effectively weaponizing their charm.

Given the cautionary tale of the tribbles’ dangerous cuteness levels, it’s also important to note that viewing a marimo can trigger people’s “cute aggression.” This phenomenon, which manifests in the form of wanting to both cuddle and squeeze the life out of something adorable, potentially has adaptive evolutionary roots in the benefit of tamping down excessive emotion.  When we are overwhelmed with love, or any emotion really, it expends valuable energy our bodies could be using elsewhere.  Best to keep it in check.

So marimo are cute because baby animals are cute, and we find things that look babyish cute because evolution has favored the practice of attuned baby-rearing.  However, I sense that my marimo madness may have another, more deeper explanation, one that takes me to the very heart of what it means to be alive on this planet.

This answer begins to emerge from celebrated biologist E.O. Wilson’s slim volume Biophilia, an autographed copy of which jumped at me from a friend’s shelf when I first read it nearly 10 years ago. The name of the book, a term Wilson himself coined, speaks to humanity’s intuitive affection and affinity for other living creatures. We are drawn to the other inhabitants of this free-wheeling orb in an instinctive, inexplicable sort of way. Wilson argues that biophilia “is the very essence of our humanity and binds us to all other living things.” Essentially, we have

an instinctive emotional bond between humans and other life forms. Evolution has fostered in us the drive to love and care for other living beings…as a way to promote the survival not just of our own kind but of life as a whole.

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels a sense of well-being in response to intimate contact with the plant kingdom.  Science has put Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis to the test and found it to be based in rather solid fact. For example, in “Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being?”, researchers Bjørn Grinde and Grete Grindal Patil synthesized the results of 50 empirical studies, reaching the conclusion that:

an environment devoid of Nature may…have a negative effect…. The problem is partly due to the visual absence of plants, and may be ameliorated by adding elements of Nature, e.g., by creating parks, by offering a view through windows, and by potted plants. 

Indeed, as Grinde and Grindal Patil emphasize, we don’t need to clad ourselves in bark onesies and take up (illegal) residence in the nearest national park to experience the wholesome qualities of nature. Instead, it seems that the dose-response effect of nature offers a profound return on investment.  To wit, significant mental and physical health improvements have been empirically demonstrated to result from such absurdly simple experiences as viewing a natural scene out a window or placing our skin in direct contact with the earth (known as “earthing” or “grounding”).

This may be why many young urban-dwelling millennials are inundating their homes in houseplants, rendering them indoor jungles. The popularity of this phenomenon was fueled by Instagram, reminding countless viewers worldwide of the similar “void in their hearts” left by a lack of access to the natural world.

Others are taking to the traditional Japanese custom of “forest bathing,” a meditative, meandering form of non-hiking hiking. Studies of this practice have shown that it can boost immunity, lower blood pressure, and enhance mood.  Beyond the mere exposure to the sights and sounds of the natural world and the respite from the unnatural world that accompanies this exposure, research has shown that that trees release naturally beneficial compounds, known as phytoncides, that have the power to lower concentrations of stress hormones and boost the activity of a type of white blood cells known as natural killer cells.

And if the great outdoors is too far to go to find a good reason to appreciate the natural world, why not look to the great indoors instead? In homes and offices both new and old, inhabited by even the most eco-conscious residents, many people suffer from “sick building syndrome,” resulting in dizziness, allergies, and asthma. The cause? The dramatic—and dangerous—buildup of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), dangerous chemicals like acetone and formaldehyde released from myriad household items and the buildings themselves.  Rather than installing expensive ventilation systems, SUNY Oswego researcher Vadoud Niri has found a rather unassuming solution in the form of common, inexpensive houseplants. His team’s studies found that bromeliads and spider plants, among others, have the power to scrub the air clean of massive quantities of VOCs.

Amazingly, the natural world doesn’t just make us feel good emotionally–it can actually save our lives, and not even in the macro “save the planet from global climate change” sense.  I mean in the micro, right here, right now sense.

As NPR Health Shots reporter Allison Aubrey confirms,

The idea that spending time in nature is good for our health is not new. Most of human evolutionary history was spent in environments that lack buildings and walls. Our bodies have adapted to living in the natural world.

But today most of us spend much of our life indoors, or at least tethered to devices. Perhaps the new forest bathing trend is a recognition that many of us need a little nudge to get back out there.

Indeed, we are all suffering from varying degrees of “technostress,” a condition described by Craig Brod in Technostress: The Human Cost of the Computer Revolution as:

a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with the new computer technologies in a healthy manner.

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At last, you are mine.  Meet my new office companions.

Our human selves have evolved and adapted in lockstep with the natural world, our home turf (pun very much intended) for over 95% of our species’s existence.  Woe to those of us that fail to attend to the “nudge to get back out there.” That nudge may be coming from the jade plant thanklessly scouring the air you breathe, a barefoot lunchtime walk at the local park, or an adorable clump of algae that you can’t stop thinking about.  Or, perhaps more accurately, at least three adorable clumps of algae that you can’t stop thinking about.  Okay, maybe six.  Seriously, I’m stopping at twelve.  Or maybe not. (Want one?)


 

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