The neuroscience of Sacred Natural Sites; A collaboration with the Royal Botanic Garden and Beyond Borders Scotland


The 4th Books, Borders and Bikes Festival was held at Scotland’s longest continuously inhabited dwelling, Traquair House on the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders. Organised by Beyond Borders Scotland it is a unique festival of literature and thought that brings together leading writers, politicians, soldiers, lawyers and artists to discuss topics relevant to international relations Scotland’s role in the world.  Two talks “Understanding the Islamic World” and “Iraq Ten Years On: What Lessons for Syria and the U.N.?” bear testament to the breadth of discussion.   SNSI coordinator, Robert Wild took part in two events; a walk entitled “If trees could talk – what would they say?”, and a talk on the “Neuroscience of Ancient and Sacred Natural Sites”.

The group on the trail with Ian Edwards, head of events at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, discussing the cultural association of trees whilst Catherine Maxwell whose family has been in residence for 300 years provided the history of the trees. (Photos courtesy Beyond Borders)

The Sunday morning walk was ‘A Talking Science Project’ in partnership with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. It explored Traquair’s historic landscape and discovered the stories of its amazing trees (  Ian Edwards, head of events at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, led the talk on the bio-geographical histories and cultural association of trees of the estate including Yew, Lime, Silver Fir and Hazel.  Catherine Maxwell Stuart, owner and whose family has been in residence for 300 years provided the history of the trees.

The group finished with discussion within the contemplative place created by the Ancient Yews that may have survived from the time of the now cleared Ettrick Forest at which the Traquair House – a hunting lodge of the Scottish kings since around 1107 –  was originally been situated.  Robert posed that if trees could talk they may have a few questions of us like: What did you do to Ettrick Forest? What on earth have you done to half the forests on the planet? Do you imagine you look after us trees?  Really we look after you!

Following the walk the talk took place inside the packed Chapel.  Entitled “The Neuroscience of Ancient and Sacred Natural Sites: Why ancient places evoke such a powerful hold over our culture and should be protected during times of conflict”, the talk explored Sacred Natural Sites and made links to the emerging understanding of Neuroscience.

Robert kicked off saying that Sacred Natural Sites can be described as places where the human mind meets Nature.  He observed that the Traquair chapel (which is relatively new adapted for this purpose in 1829) had few indications of nature but that it is most likely that all our sacred spaces originally derived from nature.

Robert went on to describe sacred natural sites was and why they have gained the interest of the international conservation movement.  Nature conservation practitioners have a very pragmatic interest in sacred natural sites as they protect a wide range of rare species.  This is particularly important as we have now entered the 7th great extinction event, with hundreds of species becoming extinct daily.    Beyond this, however, sacred natural sites also embed a deep set of archetypes of human relationships that we might learn from in setting a more sustainable path for humanity.

One such concept is that of ‘sanctuary’ that seems to be a direct import from ancient European sacred groves into the early Christian church.   Sanctuary arose in the sacred groves of Europe where, no hunting was allowed and if a hunted animal found refuge in a sacred grove the hunt had to stop.  Human fugitives could also find sanctuary in the sacred grove.  Many of these provisions still hold in the sacred groves of Africa and Asia.  At some point this sanctuary principle transferred into the church.

Before getting into the neuroscience of the sacred, Robert Wild (left) focused on sacred sites as potential areas for limiting  conflict.

Before getting into the neuroscience of the sacred, Robert Wild (left) explored sacred sites as potential areas for limiting conflict. (Photos courtesy Beyond Borders)

Finally, and before getting into the neuroscience of the sacred, Rob focused on sacred sites as potential areas for limiting  conflict.  Rob presented an example recently shared by colleagues at the Aigine Cultural Research Centre regarding 2010 Kyrgyz conflict where hundreds of people were killed and thousands displaced in a conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country.  Many of the displaced inhabitants found refuge in a sacred site to be a safe haven in time of conflict:

“Kamchieva Mopasha an ethnic Uzbek woman and ‘shaiyks’ or guardian of the site states: “When there is a disaster, people come to this shrine and find refuge”.  According to her, at the height of the conflict in June 2010, [many people] went there both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, but they were not asking who is who, [but] together offered a sacrifice to God, pleading for the restoration of peace and harmony. Many pilgrims had stayed for those two or three days [of conflict] at the edge of the Mazar (sacred site).  As [one interviewee] Akbarov Salbar said, “not one nose or one mouth was injured”. Another interviewee said that the sacred places are areas of non-violence, and moreover places where steps are taken to overcome violence”. 

At this point Robert then handed over to Tim Phillips.  Tim is an international peace maker and co-founder of the Harvard University Project on Justice in Times of Transition and has been involved in many peace negotiations including Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and the Middle East.

Tim introduced the emerging discipline of neuroscience and discussed recent lessons that are being learnt in relation to conflict resolution.  This includes that different types of thought pattern are processed in different parts of the brain.   Different parts of the brain process different emotions and thoughts that are analogous the stages of evolution. Rational thought is now understood to be processed in a different part of the brain that deeply held and sacred values.  These new understandings have profound implications for the way that we negotiate over issues.  This is the case when seemingly rational solutions to deeply held or sacred values will not be easily considered by negotiating teams.

Sacred natural sites have been contested lands at the same time locations of peace and cooperation.  They also embed critical models of human relationships with nature.  At a time when our relationships with nature need significant healing; the spiritual, scientific and social understanding of human behaviour and action are essential.

Comment on this post