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Lecture/Discussion Topics

Evolutionary Psychology and Biophilia

According to evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson (1984), humans have an innate affinity for nature that he calls “biophilia.” In various writings on biophilia by Wilson and others (e.g., Kellert, 1997; Kellert & Wilson, 1993), this affinity is described as a love of nature, an attraction to nature, and a feeling of connection to nature. Wilson theorizes that this affinity stems directly from our ancestral past, a past in which humans evolved as part of the natural landscape, not separated from it. Biophilia and its converse, “biophobia” are interesting topics to address within the context of evolutionary and biopsychology. For more on Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, see the Ecopsychology page of this site.

Appetite, Sleep, Activity, and the Resource-intensive Lifestyle

Eating, sleeping, and moving the body are three basic physiological processes that are disrupted and distorted in contemporary urban environments (Scott, Amel, Koger, & Manning, 2016). Students will be familiar with media reports about the “epidemics” of sleep deprivation and obesity in American culture and will be intimately familiar with the ways that innate sleep needs and natural appetites are undermined by hectic schedules, artificial lighting, fast food, caffeine, alcohol, etc. They may also have heard alarming reports about the health consequences of inactivity (“sitting is the new smoking!”). After reviewing the ample research on the negative health effects of sleep deprivation, poor eating, and inactivity, the biopsychology instructor can connect these issues to environmental sustainability by asking students to think critically about the origins and consequences of these society-wide problems. We are sleep-deprived inactive unhealthy eaters because of our lifestyle circumstances; encourage students to consider alternative lifestyles (cross-culturally, historically) that are more intimately connected to the natural context (e.g., sleep influenced by natural light levels, a diet consisting of whole, non-processed foods). Note that contemporary, unhealthy lifestyles are not only stressful for our bodies and minds, they are also taxing the planet in that they are extremely resource-intensive. Ask students to consider the relative ecological impact of people living in sync with natural appetites and sleep cycles compared to people living as most U.S. residents do. Instructors may want to introduce the ideas of “evolutionary mismatch,” i.e., between our pre-industrial physiology and the industrialized lifestyle (Gluckman & Hanson, 2008), and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA; Gangestad & Simpson, 2007), which refers not a specific time or place, but to a set of conditions for which humans are best adapted. Modern society differs in significant ways from the EEA.

The Impact of Environmental Stressors on Animal Behavior

Biological and environmental psychologists study the effect of environmental stressors such as noise and pollution on human behavior, but what effect do these stressors have on the behaviors of nonhuman species? To spark a discussion on this topic, an instructor could introduce students to the example of marine noise pollution. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has been working for decades to reduce underwater noise from human activities such as military sonar, gas exploration, and construction. The organization cites research evidence that marine noise pollution interferes with communication in whales, dolphins, and porpoises, and disrupts their natural feeding and breeding behaviors. Efforts to mitigate noise are showing promise.

Animal Research and Animal Rights Activism

Animal models are fundamental in biopsychology and neuroscience. By connecting the issue of ethics in animal research to the larger animals rights movement, instructors can encourage students to think about humans’ connection with animals and the natural world in general. The discussion will not be boring and may get heated. Prepare students with some words about respectful dialogue. Suggested discussion questions include the following:

  • Why are some people so upset by animal research while others are unfazed by it?
  • Why is research a particular target of activists when the clear majority (97%) of animals used by humans is for food, and only a very small percentage (0.3%, or 3/1000) is used for research?
  • Animal welfare advocates find some research procedures gruesome and cruel. Have researchers who perform these procedures become desensitized? Is a process of desensitization necessary for animal researchers when they are first starting their careers?
  • What motivates animal rights activists to free laboratory animals? Are their actions inspired by ecological awareness and concern?
  • Is it ethical to use living creatures for research intended to subvert natural processes of illness, disease, and mortality in humans? Does it make a difference in your position if the illness, disease, or mortality are brought on by natural factors (e. g., old age) versus by unnatural factors (e. g., exposure to chemical toxins)?
  • (How) does research on sentience and emotion in animals affect your feelings about animal research in general and about standards of care for laboratory animals?

See the History of Psychology page of this site for more on attitudes toward animal research.

Neurotoxicity and Behavior

The topic of toxic pollution is very relevant to the discipline of psychology because of mounting research on the negative developmental, cognitive, and behavioral effects of exposure (e.g., see reviews by Grandjean & Landrigan, 2014; Koger, Schettler, & Weiss, 2005; Scott, Amel, Koger, & Manning, 2016). Many chemical pollutants including endocrine disruptors interfere with pre- and post-natal development, and can contribute to developmental disabilities affecting intellectual ability, memory, attention, behavioral problems, and autism spectrum disorders. Zala and Penn (2004) suggested that the full extent of the negative effects of toxicants on behavior and cognitive functioning may not become apparent unless observed in a naturalistic context (e. g., one containing stressors that might catalyze the effects). A discussion about the biopsychological effects of toxicants is incomplete without addressing the issues of education and prevention. Students may assume that industrial pollutants are the only concern, but many toxic chemicals are also found in common household products, including personal care products. Ask students, ” How can people be encouraged to stop using these toxic products when users feel they are required to maintain a standard of appearance, of cleanliness in the house, or of greenness of the lawn?” Clearly, the answer is not merely to educate people about the potential hazardous effects; there are social norms and cultural expectations at play. For example, Carol Werner (2003) found that a program to reduce the use of toxic household products was more successful when individuals were not targeted for change in isolation, but were educated along with their social group. An individual may know that certain chemicals are dangerous, but if these chemicals are accepted by ” everyone else” as normal (or necessary), this may present a barrier to individual change. See related class activity below, Toxicants: The Personal. 

Class Activities

Measuring Arousal in Response to Nature

Have students conduct an exercise demonstrating the relation between psychological states and physiological response when viewing natural versus human environments. Beforehand, the instructor should collect images of scenes of nature (waterfalls, woods, wildlife, etc.) vs. human environments (large cities, traffic, air pollution spewing from factories, etc), or short (e. g., 10-min.) video clips of each. There are numerous free stock photos sites on the internet, or use the images below. These pictures vary on a variety of dimensions (e. g., whether people are present; whether the scene is built, natural, or both; whether the human impact is damaging or more benign; shapes and colors):


Student experimenters should create sets of photos and then measure heart rate and blood pressure before and during viewing of the images by fellow student participants. Include assessment of subjective arousal to the video stimuli such as that described by Rowland, Kaariainen, and Houtsmuller (2000): Rate the following 4 adjectives using a 7 point scale, where 1 = not at all and 7 = extremely: relaxed, excited, calm, fearful. In addition to reporting on the results of the arousal measures, student experimenters should describe their photo sets in terms of potential confounds and how those confounds may affect arousal reports.

(adapted from Rowland, D. L., Kaariainen, A., & Houtsmuller, E. J., 2000. Interactions between physiological and affective arousal: A laboratory exercise for psychology.Teaching of Psychology, 27, 34-37.)

Reviewing Research on Environmental Toxicants

There is a burgeoning literature on “environmental” toxicants; i.e., pollutants that are released by humans into the environment (air, water, soils, etc.), and their impacts on the health and well-being of humans and other animals. Many of these substances act as direct neurotoxins or as endocrine disruptors. Have students find, read, and report on current empirical articles that describe a particular substance or class of substances (e.g., pesticides, plastics, flame retardants, heavy metals, and the mix of chemicals comprising air pollution). Detailed assignment instructions can be found here. [Submitted by Sue Koger.]

Class Activities

Bottled Water and Endocrine Disruption

Ask students to evaluate their use of bottled water (do they buy bottled water? How much/how often?). Then, ask them to research the energy costs of bottled water and the leaching of endocrine disruptors and other toxic chemicals into bottled water. Did their findings impact their views about bottled water? Do they think their behavior will likely change as a result? Why/why not? This material could form the basis of a reaction paper or class discussion. 

Instructors could also link this assignment to social psychology: What are the apparent descriptive social norms on campus about bottled water use?  Is there an injunctive social norm?  How might students use a social norm approach to reduce the use of bottled water on your campus?  (Activity adapted from Koenig & Reyns, 2012.)

Toxicants Scorecard

Have students investigate the pollution in their hometown and complete a Chemical Exposure Chart:

  • What chemicals have you been/are you exposed to?
  • At what location(s) do these exposures occur?
  • What’s the method of exposure? (inhaling, ingesting, skin contact, etc?)
  • How much control would you say you had/have over the exposure? [1= a lot 2= some 3= none]
  • What now? For instance, are there measures you could take to minimize/prevent exposures?

Toxicants: The Personal

Ask students to choose a personal product (e.g., personal care item, cosmetic, household cleaner, plasticware) and learn about the health risks associated with it (e.g., at Environmental Working Group). Have them write a brief (1-2) page reaction paper and/or prepare a presentation describing a) their response to the information about the health risks; b) whether they’d be likely to avoid that product in the future as a result; and c) if so, what safer alternative would they choose? d) If there’s no readily available alternative, what would be the outcome of doing without that product (e.g., related to personal or social norms)?

Toxicants: The Community

Assign students to groups and have each group choose the type of chemicals that most concern group members. Have students use  internet resources to answer the following questions and prepare a group presentation:

  • Why is the chemical used?
  • How does this chemical make people’s lives better?
  • What would happen if the chemical were eliminated?
  • What, if any, governmental regulations exist regarding this chemical?
  • What is known about its toxicity for adults and for children?

Follow-up with a class discussion. What was most surprising to learn? What questions do students still have that they would like answered? How might students set up a scientific study to answer some of those questions?

Toxicants Research Paper

There is a burgeoning literature on “environmental” toxicants; i.e., pollutants that are released by humans into the environment (air, water, soils, etc.), and their impacts on the health and well-being of humans and other animals. Many of these substances act as direct neurotoxins or as endocrine disruptors. Each student should:

  • Find a recent research/empirical article that describes a particular substance or class of substances (pesticides, plastics, flame retardants, heavy metals, and the mix of chemicals comprising air pollution would be some examples) that is relevant to psychology.
  • The selected article should contain some description of both the mechanism of action (known or suspected), as well as its psychological impact (i.e., on emotion, cognition, reproduction, or other behavior(s)).

Instructors could have students turn in a topic statement and reference early in the term; then at the end of the term, they write a formal paper, and/or prepare a presentation and exam question.

Final Paper (~4-6 pages, double spaced):

  • Write a description in your own words of the study’s methodology, findings, and implications, using appropriate APA citation style;
  • Include a discussion of how the study directly relates to course material, including the biological mechanism of the substance’s action and its psychological impacts;
  • Discuss whether it was possible for the researchers to conduct a true experiment, or did they rely on quasi-experimental or correlational designs.
  • Include an APA style References section.

Presentation & Exam Question: Based on the main points in your final paper, prepare a short (8-10 min) presentation to give orally during the last week of class. Write a question that could be included on the final exam. Your peers should be able to answer the question based only on your presentation (rather than needing to read your article or final paper). The question should be in the form of multiple choice, short answer, or fill-in the blank(s).

Instructors could include all students’ exam questions on the final exam, and ask students to choose a subset to answer (not including the one they submitted).

Website: Biological Psychology Newslink

This site is a searchable database of abstracts of news articles related to biopsychology topics. Students can search by a list of keywords related to sustainability (e. g., animal rights, neurotoxins, evolution) or by their own search terms (e. g., conservation, environmentalist) to find links to relevant articles.

Multimedia Resources

Films: Health Hazards of Environmental Toxicants

Films that instructors could use to introduce the topic of health hazards of environmental toxicants include:

Toxic Baby (2016, 93 min.) In a unique blend of music, animation, and science, Toxic Baby reveals the shocking truth of one of the greatest environmental issues we face today: our children’s exposure to thousands of chemicals in their day to day lives and the mounting concern within the scientific community about the implications of this exposure on their health and development; There’s a related, shorter, Ted Talk on The Toxic Baby (2010; 17:48) by Filmmaker Penelope Jagesser Chaffer & scientist Tyrone Hayes.

The Human Experiment (2013, 91 min.) “lifts the veil on the shocking reality that thousands of untested chemicals are in our everyday products, our homes and inside of us. Simultaneously, the prevalence of many diseases continues to rise. From Oscar® winner Sean Penn and Emmy® winning journalists Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, The Human Experiment tells the personal stories of people who believe their lives have been affected by chemicals and takes viewers to the front lines as activists go head-to-head with the powerful and well-funded chemical industry. These activists bring to light a corrupt system that’s been hidden from consumers… until now. [exerpt from the website].

The Toxic Assault on our Children (2013; 50:00).  Bill Moyers interviewed Sandra Steingraber (biologist, mother, and activist) about the risks of toxins, including those created through fracking. Note that there are several other Moyers programs on chemical legislation, community pollution, etc.

 Tar Creek (2012, 54 min.) tells the story of the Tar Creek Superfund site in NE Oklahoma and the massive and deadly remains left by the lead and zinc mines there.

Programmed to be Fat? (2012, 45 min.) Man-made chemicals may be programming us to be fat – before we’re even born.

Toxic Soup: The Politics of Pollution (2010, min.) This documentary “reveals pictures of environmental pollution throughout America. It’s the politics of pollution as giant corporations manipulate the system to delay environmental reform, endangering the lives of people all over the world for increased profits. Toxic Soup shares the stories of everyday folks fighting to keep their blood, water, and air safe from pollution.” [excerpt from the website]

Contaminated Without Consent (2008, 16 min.) This free short video offers an excellent overview of the risks from chemical contaminants commonly found in our homes, workplaces, and products.

Homo Toxicus (2008, 90 min. or 50 min.) This film addresses the link between the toxic substances we are exposed to on an everyday basis and the increasing number of health problems associated with this exposure. Through interviews with respected industry scientists, as well as independent researchers, this film illuminates the toxins we are inadvertently handing down to our children, and the inconsistent standards of evaluation and regulation that are part of the problem.

Addicted to Plastic (2007, 85 min.) Reveals the history and worldwide scope of plastics pollution, investigates its toxicity and explores solutions.

Toxic Bust (2006, 41 min.) Explores the relationship between breast cancer and exposure to toxic chemicals.

Website: Kids and Chemicals

Kids and Chemicals was a documentary that Bill Moyers produced in 2002; The website includes a variety of relevant classroom resources.

Website: Toxipedia

Toxipedia has resources for instructors educating about negative health effects of environmental toxicants.

Website: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s TSCA Inventory

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a law that requires manufacturers of chemicals to register them, was passed in 1976. Synthetic chemicals must be reported to the EPA, but they need not be tested for safety before they are put to use. To date, the EPA has required testing of only about 200 of the more than 84,000 chemicals on the list. Only nine have been subject to regulation for posing an “unreasonable risk” to human health. These include asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and lead. Food, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and cosmetics are excluded from the TSCA. (Chameides, 2011). EPA TSCA Inventory

Website: Globe At Night-Light Pollution

Light pollution is ambient illumination coming from streetlamps, headlights, airports, public buildings, and other sources that cast light upward or sideways, brightening the night sky. Light pollution has expanded well beyond urban areas, and it poses significant health risks to humans (e.g., Haim & Portnov, 2013) and other species (Rich & Longcore, 2005). The Globe at Night is an international campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness and submit their observations to the website from a computer or smart phone.

Suggested Readings For Students

Koger, S. M., Schettler, T., & Weiss, B. (2005). Environmental toxicants and developmental disabilities: A challenge for psychologists. American Psychologist, 60, 243-255.

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. L., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). Making ourselves sick: Health costs of unsustainable living. In Psychology for sustainability (4th ed). New York: Routledge.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). National Center for Environmental Health. Available at

Chameides, B. (2011, June 14). The Toxic Substances Control Act’s toxic baddies. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Doughton, S. (2013, Nov. 1). Hanford nuke plant’s earthquake risk underestimated. The Seattle Times. Retrieved 9/10/15 from

Gangestad, S. W. & Simpson, J. A. (Eds.). (2007). The evolution of mind: Fundamental questions and controversies. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Gluckman, P., & Hanson, M. (2008). Mismatch: The lifestyle diseases timebomb. New York: Oxford University Press.

Grandjean, P., & Landrigan, P. J. (2006). Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals. Lancet, 368, 2167–2178. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(06)69665-7

Grandjean, P., & Landrigan, P. J. (2014). Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity. The Lancet Neurology, 13(3), 330-338. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(13)70278-3

Haim, A., & Portnov, B. A. (2013). Light pollution as a new risk factor for human breast and prostate cancers. New York, NY: Springer.

Heyman, D. & Pérez-Peña, R. (2015, Feb. 17). Spilled oil keeps flames burning after a train derailment in West Virginia. The New York Times, retrieved 9/10/15 from

Jeng, H. A. (2014). Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals and male reproductive health. Frontiers in Public Health, 2,55.doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2014.00055

Kellert, S. R. (1997). Kinship to mastery: Biophilia in human evolution and development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Kellert, S. R. & Wilson, E. O. (Eds.) (1993). The biophilia hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Koenig, A. M. & Reyns, N. B. (2012). Assignments integrating psychology and environmental studies. Ecopsychology, 4, 110-116.

Koger, S. M., Schettler, T., & Weiss, B. (2005). Environmental toxicants and developmental disabilities: A challenge for psychologists. American Psychologist, 60, 243-255.

Revkin, A. C. (2013, July 8). The long chain of responsibility behind an oily and deadly train wreck. The New York Times. Retrieved 9/10/15 from

Rich, C., & Longcore, T. (Eds.). (2005). Ecological consequences of artificial night lighting. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Rocked by New Year’s apocalypse (2014, 1/1). The Daily Telegraph (Australia).

Rowland, D. L., Kaariainen, A., & Houtsmuller, E. J. (2000). Interactions between physiological and affective arousal: A laboratory exercise for psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 34-37.

Schulz, K. (2015). The really big one: An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal northwest. The question is when. Retrieved 9/10/15 from

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. L., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). Making ourselves sick: Health costs of unsustainable living. In Psychology for sustainability (4th ed). New York: Routledge.

Smith, et al. (2013). Energy and human health. Annual Review of Public Health, 34, 159–188. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031912-114404.

Werner, C. M. (2003). Changing homeowners’ use of toxic household products: A transactional approach. Journal of Environmental Psychology , 23 , 33-45.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zala, S. M., & Penn, D. J. (2004). Abnormal behaviors induced by chemical pollution: A review of the evidence and new challenges. Animal Behavior, 68, 649-664.