In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Neuroscience and Environmental Psychology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • In Utero Environment
  • Epigenetics

Psychology Environmental Neuroscience and Environmental Psychology
Marc Berman, Daniel J. Hayes, Katherine Krpan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0174


The external environment can have a profound impact on our brains and behavior. Yet, even with such a profound impact, it is often easy to ignore just how much the environment can affect us. This is exacerbated by the fact that humans have been able to manipulate their environment so effectively to ease daily life. Even so, the environment shapes our brains and behaviors tremendously. This article will review the literature on how the environment (examined from different levels of analysis) can affect our brains and behaviors. The article draws on research across disciplines (e.g., biopsychology in nonhuman animals) and with different technologies (e.g., genomics and fMRI) to uncover just how powerfully the environment can affect our brains and behaviors. There are four main sections to this article. The first deals with the in utero environment and how it can affect the brain. The second focuses on the maternal environment and other changes in the environment during development that can affect the brain and behavior. The third section discusses epigenetic factors and how environmental factors can affect an organism’s gene expression, which will influence neural, psychological, and behavioral development. Lastly, impacts of the social and physical environment on brain and behavior are discussed. Importantly, it is not possible to review all the extant literature on how the environment can affect brain and behavior. These studies were selected on the basis of the authors’ research interests and knowledge base. Any omissions are not a sign of lack of interest, but rather the limitations in summarizing a large body of knowledge. In all, the selected set of studies shows the profound impact that the environment can have on brain and behavior.

General Overviews

As mentioned in the introduction, there is a tendency for humans to ignore the powerful effects that the environment can have on our brains and behavior. Bargh and Chartrand 1999 posits that some of this neglect is due to the fact that so much of human behavior is guided by unconscious processing that helps us regulate our behavior in our environment. Another source of this neglect may be due to our tendency to ignore situational/environmental factors and their impact on behavior. Research by Edward Jones and Victor Harris (Jones and Harris 1967) uncovered a now well-known social-psychological phenomenon, the fundamental attribution error, which describes how individuals tend to ignore the impact of situational/environmental factors when evaluating other people’s behavior. Another contributing factor to this neglect is the level of difficulty in studying the environment, given the incredible amount of available information contained in the external environment. Even with this difficulty, a related field has developed, which has been termed “population neuroscience” (Paus 2013). As Tomáš Paus explains, the goal of population neuroscience is to understand how the brain is shaped by internal effects such as genes and from external factors such as the social and physical environment. Falk, et al. 2013 concludes that a critical element of population neuroscience is to examine data sets with large numbers of participants to have the power to uncover these relationships, a point that has more recently been made by other researchers. This certainly makes the study of the environment’s impact difficult but should not dissuade researchers from pursuing this line of inquiry. In addition to these large population studies, there have been a number of theories that posited just how the environment can have an impact on our behavior. One such theory, known as attention restoration theory (ART), was introduced by research in Kaplan 1995 and Kaplan and Berman 2010, which posits that interacting with natural environments can have a salubrious effect on psychological processing, by resting top-down attentional mechanisms via activating bottom-up attentional mechanisms. More specifics regarding this and other theories will be presented in subsequent sections of this article.

  • Bargh, J. A., and T. L. Chartrand. 1999. The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist 54.7: 462–479.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.54.7.462

    This article presents just how much of our self-regulated behavior is driven by unconscious processing.

  • Falk, E. B., L. W. Hyde, C. Mitchell, et al. 2013. What is a representative brain? Neuroscience meets population science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110.44: 17615–17622.

    DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1310134110

    This article encourages neuroscience researchers to increase the sample size of their studies and the representativeness of their samples, and it further encourages population researchers to begin thinking of neural mechanisms involved in said phenomena.

  • Jones, E. E., and V. A. Harris. 1967. The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 3.1: 1–24.

    DOI: 10.1016/0022-1031(67)90034-0

    This article is one of the first to show the fundamental attribution error.

  • Kaplan, S. 1995. The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. In Special issue: Green psychology. Journal of Environmental Psychology 15.3: 169–182.

    DOI: 10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2

    This is the first article to present the ART for why interacting with nature may be restorative to psychological processing.

  • Kaplan, S., and M. G. Berman. 2010. Directed attention as a common resource for executive functioning and self-regulation. Perspectives on Psychological Science 5.1: 43–57.

    DOI: 10.1177/1745691609356784

    This paper presents evidence as to the common resource between executive functioning and self-regulation being the ability to direct attention. Direct attention can be restored via interactions with natural environments.

  • Paus, T. 2013. Population Neuroscience. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-36450-1

    This book presents a comprehensive view of the field of population neuroscience. It also shows the connections to environmental neuroscience.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.