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“The earth laughs in flowers.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

What is it about flowers? We have always been strangely attracted to them. Stone drawings of flowers were found in ancient Egyptian graves as far back as 120,000 years ago. At first, this attraction seems primarily aesthetic. Flowers are a multi-sensory experience with smell, texture, and color. They invite us to get close to smell them, to move our bodies to find them, to water them, to pick them, to carry them in our hands or hair, and to share them.

However, scientists also think that from an evolutionary perspective, flowers use the strategy of activating humans to grow and propagate them, just as they activate insects with pollen. Flowers evoke positive emotions, because they predict food-growing possibilities, locate ripe fruit, and show where humans may thrive. Flower shapes and colors produce a strong visual impact and vision activates visual as well as sensory-motor and affective brain circuits. Experience of flowers includes smell, movement, and touch which stimulate autobiographical memory, and recall of long term memory and associations through former experiences. Thus, flowers become connected to events, romance, celebrations and rituals - even around death. All the above may be incentives for us to seek and cultivate flowers to enhance our experience of the world.

Several recent behavioral studies at Rutgers University investigated the effects flowers have on us. Subjects received deliveries of flowers, or gifts such as fruit and candles. Most deliveries received a positive response, but the highest response was to flowers, and the positive feelings lasted up to three days only in those receiving flowers. Another study measured reactions of men and women receiving a flower in a public elevator. The most common social behavior in an elevator is to get as much distance from others as possible. However, when a single flower was presented to each of the occupants, they moved closer to the presenter and to one another. Presenting promotional pens did not produce the same response, suggesting there is something about flowers that draws people closer together. A third study looked at residents in retirement/assisted living settings and participants in senior day programs. Demographically, many people in this group are depressed and have decreased cognitive skills. Nevertheless, presenting flowers had an immediate positive impact on mood which was sustained over several days. Participants who got flowers also scored higher on episodic memory tasks.

How do flowers alter emotion, mood, behavior and memory? Well, to affect brain functions, an experience has to affect neurotransmitters – chemicals that signal brain activity. Scientists offer several theories.

  1. Flowers meant the coming of spring and abundance to ancestral humans, and have become a persisting reward signal triggering release of Dopamine.

  2. Seeing flowers which are fragile and need our care likely releases Oxytocin which has the effect of drawing people closer and improving trust.

  3. Serotonin is released when we feel pride and social importance, and growing, giving or receiving flowers may stimulate this.

  4. Endorphins, which relieve pain and stress, may be released by physical activity when tending flowers or walking to find them.

All of this emphasizes that we humans are inextricably embedded in a much larger sensory and social environment than that occupied by our own self-aggrandizing species. It reminds me to look around, to stop, to smell the flowers, and to take care of the planet and all its inhabitants.

(Read more: 1. Habits of a Happy Brain, by Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, 2015. 2. Jeannette Haviland-Jones et al. An Environmental Approach to Positive Emotion: Flowers. Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 3, January 2005.)

Author: Nadia Fike

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