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Why Do We Love Mountains? Here’s What the Science Says

Mountains have always captivated the human imagination. Across cultures, religions, and throughout history, these towering formations have been seen as places of power, mystery, and the sacred. But why are we so drawn to them? Is it merely their grandeur that mesmerizes us, or is there a deeper, perhaps even primal reason behind this allure? This article will explore various scientific theories that attempt to answer this enigma and dissect the evidence that supports each perspective.

Table of Contents

The Psychological Perspective: Awe and Wonder

One of the most straightforward theories about our fascination with mountains comes from psychology — specifically, the concept of “awe.” This emotional response combines elements of amazement, respect, and fear. A 2003 study by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, published in the journal “Cognition and Emotion,” suggests that experiences of awe can be transformative, facilitating a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself and promoting altruistic behavior.

Researchers have used questionnaires and experience sampling methods to quantify the emotional and psychological effects of awe-inducing environments like mountains. Consistently, these settings have been shown to decrease stress and increase well-being, providing a natural “mood boost.” Moreover, such experiences can have long-lasting impact, often encouraging individuals to become more engaged in community activities or even to make significant life changes.

The Evolutionary Perspective: Survival and Observation

Another angle comes from evolutionary biology, which suggests that our ancestors had practical reasons for venturing into high places. In his book “The Mountain Mystery,” geologist Robert Macfarlane posits that elevated viewpoints offer tactical advantages for survival, such as the ability to spot prey or predators from a distance.

While this explanation might seem entirely practical, it doesn’t fully capture why, in the modern age, we still seek out mountain experiences that have little to do with survival. However, the theory gains some ground when we consider the concept of the “savanna preference,” as outlined by Gordon H. Orians and Judith H. Heerwagen in their 1992 study. Here, they suggest that humans are predisposed to prefer environments that offer both prospect (open visibility) and refuge (areas for hiding), features that are often present in mountainous terrains.

Why Do We Love Mountains

The Neuroscientific Perspective: Brain Chemistry

Our brains also play a significant role in our love for the mountains. Activities often associated with mountains, like hiking or skiing, are shown to release endorphins and other feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin. Dr. Michael Yassa, a neuroscientist, published a study in “Nature” that suggests the brain’s hippocampus, which is essential for memory and navigation, is highly engaged when we find ourselves in complex environments like mountains.

MRI studies have shown that when subjects visualize or navigate complex topographies, the hippocampus becomes more active. This could explain why we feel invigorated or “alive” when conquering a challenging mountain trail.

The Spiritual Perspective: Sacredness and Transformation

In various cultures and religions, mountains have often been considered places of spiritual significance. For instance, Mount Olympus was home to the gods in Greek mythology, and Mount Kailash is considered sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Though not strictly scientific, the notion that mountains offer spiritual transformation is widespread and often cited as a reason for their magnetic pull.

While empirical evidence for spiritual experiences is hard to quantify, studies in the field of neurotheology, such as those by Dr. Andrew Newberg, have attempted to measure brain activity during reported spiritual experiences. His work suggests that during these moments, certain brain networks associated with self-referential thoughts and emotions are deactivated, potentially pointing to why spiritual locations like mountains could have universal appeal.

The Sociocultural Perspective: Collective Identity and Shared Experience

Another compelling theory posits that our fascination with mountains stems from a sociocultural angle. Mountains often serve as natural boundaries, landmarks, and focal points that influence the development of societies and cultures. Sociologist Yi-Fu Tuan, in his seminal work “Topophilia,” explores the emotional and psychological relationships between human beings and their environment. He argues that mountains often become symbols of collective identity and shared history, thereby garnering profound cultural and emotional importance.

Historically, mountain ranges have served as natural boundaries that have influenced the geopolitical organization of human societies. Their presence has also shaped cultural narratives and myths. For example, the Rockies in North America, the Andes in South America, and the Himalayas in Asia are all deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of their respective regions. Academic studies exploring folklore, myths, and historical texts often find references to mountains as places of origin or epic battles, further cementing their role in collective identity.

Why Do We Love the Mountains

The Ecological Perspective: Biophilia and Ecotherapy

Lastly, the ecological perspective, closely related to E.O. Wilson’s concept of “biophilia,” suggests that humans have an innate affinity for nature, which extends to mountains. Wilson argues that our evolutionary history has conditioned us to seek natural environments conducive to our survival, which includes diverse ecosystems often found in mountainous regions. Recent studies in the burgeoning field of ecotherapy show that spending time in such environments can offer significant mental health benefits.

Studies have found that engaging with diverse natural ecosystems can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. The textures, smells, and colors found in mountainous terrains seem to have a tangible therapeutic impact. For example, in Japan, the practice of “Shinrin-yoku,” or “forest bathing,” often conducted in mountainous regions, has been shown to improve both mental and physical health, reinforcing the idea that our affinity for mountains may be linked to their ecological richness.

Why Do We Love the Mountains? The Answer is Complicated

Our attraction to mountains is a multi-layered and complex phenomenon, informed by psychological, evolutionary, neuroscientific, spiritual, sociocultural, and ecological factors. Each perspective offers a unique explanation, yet all converge on the idea that mountains have a profound and far-reaching impact on us. As we climb these peaks, both literally and metaphorically, they continue to captivate and mystify us, offering new insights into our collective human experience.

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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