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IN BRIEF

Environment

April 18, 1993|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE POWER OF PLACE: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions by Winifred Gallagher (Poseidon: $22; 239 pp.) Cabin fever, manic depression, UFO abductions. Do we ever stop to think that these disorders are all the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? In this bold and fascinating book Gallagher examines some of the subtle "sensory interactions between us and our settings"--something we forget about all too easily, in our efforts to adapt to increasingly bizarre, not to mention unnatural, environments. "The price for this coping strategy," says Gallagher, "can be a reduction in the quantity and quality of our experiences." It can also cause what she refers to as "learned helplessness," a phrase used to describe rats who "repeatedly fail to escape a painful stimulus." They become overwhelmed and numbed, and being overwhelmed by our environment--the noise, the crowding, a lack of familiarity--paves the way to clinical depression.

Freudian theory and psychoanalysis shifted the determinants of mental health inward, paying little attention to the external, biological environment. Psychoanalysis, while a great leap from "taking the waters" nonetheless increased our resistance to "recognizing the importance of environment in our lives." The Chinese refer to feng shui, literally "wind and water" or what we call ambience. Office buildings, where, for example, we spend 90% of our lives, have very bad feng shui, as do malls.

This book is a "cogitator," long on perspective, and some of the supporting evidence is tantalizing but not very well supported. For example, a connection between hay fever and shyness; anorexia as an "adaptive behavior gone haywire"--women with migratory behavior in their genes preparing for deprivation; or that immune systems in babies born by Caesarean section may be impaired. There isn't really a solution here, but the problem is creatively explored: We live too much, as Manning says in "A Good House" (see above) "between our ears."

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