The Neurobiology behind a Sense of Place

I remember clearly one of the first times I was aware of the concept that can be characterized as a “sense of place.” Several months into a year-long backpacking trip, I was mesmerized by my experiences in East Africa. Then, once it became what would have been summer back home, I experienced a sudden and profound sense of longing for the landscapes of Ontario. I was not homesick so much as missing the whole milieu I would normally experience in that sweet season: the forests, lakes, rock, and activities of summer time.

This attachment to somewhere, be it a natural or a built environment, is known by various terms including place attachment, environmental identity, and rootedness, among others. I personally like “sense of place” as it captures simultaneously the idea of a location along with the more esoteric notion that it involves a feeling; an emotional response. The concept emerged from theoretical and empirical research since the 1970s.

Relationships between self and environment are a central focus in the field of environmental psychology. Such research addresses the physical, social, and natural dimensions of place identity, and indicates that people’s environments can be tightly linked to their sense of self. Our physical environments are important to our identities not merely because they support some of our material needs: they are also the ‘theatre’ in which our life events unfold, and further, environments can play an actual role in our lives. Places can therefore affect our thinking, social structures, and well-being.

Psychologists, human geographers, and neuroscientists are all studying how a sense of place develops. Early childhood experiences have a particularly important influence. The environment in which we were raised has been called the ‘primal landscape’ — it becomes part of our self-identity and a measuring stick for later experiences. This is true not only of natural landscapes, but also of urban landscapes including dense, inner-city neighborhoods. Some of the most important elements that shape our childhood environmental experiences include family, community, the opportunity to play, culture, and natural events.

Environmental identity later in life can then influence how we process information and behave. A recent review by Lengen and Kistemann made a great contribution to this field by linking the concepts from environmental psychology with neurological studies that typically have a wholly different approach (and jargon). Evidence demonstrated that having a conscious sense of place involves a distinct dimension in neural processing. Indeed, specific regions and cells of the brain have been identified that are related to the process. For example, a representation of the visual environment is built in the hippocampus, which plays a key role in spatial memory and learning. The paper detailed ten important neurobiological correlates that are involved in having a sense of place, which are as follows:

This work is exciting because it found a way to bridge the gap between divergent fields, and thus showed how current neurobiology findings can facilitate a better understanding about the subjective feelings of sense of place, such as that which I had experienced in Kenya.


DERR, V. (2002). CHILDREN’S SENSE OF PLACE IN NORTHERN NEW MEXICO Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22 (1-2), 125-137 DOI: 10.1006/jevp.2002.0252

Devine-Wright, P., & Clayton, S. (2010). Introduction to the special issue: Place, identity and environmental behaviour Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30 (3), 267-270 DOI: 10.1016/S0272-4944(10)00078-2

Lengen C, & Kistemann T (2012). Sense of place and place identity: review of neuroscientific evidence. Health & place, 18 (5), 1162-71 PMID: 22440778

Lim, M., & Barton, A. (2010). Exploring insideness in urban children’s sense of place Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30 (3), 328-337 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.03.002

Measham, T. (2007). Primal Landscapes: Insights for Education From Empirical Research on Ways of Learning About Environments International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 16 (4), 339-350 DOI: 10.2167/irgee221.0

Image via Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock.

Kara Lefevre, PhD, MSc

Kara Lefevre, PhD, MSc, is a professional environmental biologist, educator, and science writer. She holds a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Toronto and a MSc in Biology from Queen's University. She has combined her interests in biology and travel by studying birds in remote island locations around the world.
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