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Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of…

Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life

by Colin Ellard

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6114275,417 (3.73)10



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Neuroscientist Colin Ellard explores the ways in which the human mind responds to the various environments we move through in our lives, from forests to urban streets to the insides of buildings.

It's a potentially fascinating topic, but I'm afraid the book itself didn't engage me quite as much as I'd hoped. It's a little dry, and in places somewhat repetitive. It didn't help, I don't think, that I was expecting more of an examination of specific environments, how they're designed, how we respond to those designs, and how human psychology can or should be taken into account by architects or urban planners. There is some of that, certainly, but on the whole the subject matter is much more abstract, and much more focused on brains than on places. Also, the author places a little too much emphasis on his own research using VR to simulate environments like the interior of houses, and I don't think the details of that are quite as interesting as he thinks they are.

Still, it's not bad, even if it's not quite what I was hoping for. I did appreciate Ellard's thoughtful discussion, towards the end of the book, of the ways in which modern technology, such as smartphones and the emerging Internet of Things, can affect our experiences of the physical world around us in both positive and negative ways. ( )
1 vote bragan | Jul 31, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received this as an Early Review book. It was fractured and difficult to follow. Also did not seem to uncover any "psychogeogreography" other than that places, shapes and things in ones environment have meaning and contain memory which I think most people understand. ( )
  CarterPJ | Mar 1, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
(an Early Reviewer selection)

Six-word summation: Interesting concept falls short of promise.

Extended comments:

The premise of the book--namely, that human beings are affected by the built spaces in which they live and move, and that those effects can be studied and described--attracted me. I have always tried to remember that every structure I see around me, no matter how ugly, represents what somebody at some time thought was a good idea; but the fact is that many of them are and maybe always were antithetical to human physical and psychological comfort.

However, I bogged down with the reading of the book and was unable to finish it. I got to page 160 out of 226 (followed by backmatter)--that's about 70 percent--and couldn't make myself go further. So this is no better than a partial review.

Normally when I abandon a book I don't think it's fair to write a review at all, but in this case I have an Early Reviewer commitment to fulfill, albeit belatedly. I won't rate it in stars, though, because that does require completion. So please take this as a limited review based on a partial reading; it's possible that the last 66 pages would have left me with a different impression.

Why couldn't I push on through? It wasn't that some of the ideas seemed too off-the-wall for me, even if they were, or that some explanations seemed contrived to fit a theory and failed to take reasonable alternatives into account, although those things were part of it.

It was the writing.

Consider this 83-word prodigy:

"The burgeoning new field of neuroeconomics, for example, is largely founded on the notion that a human being's behavior only follows logical principles so far and that a fully nuanced understanding of how we decide what to do must also take into account our peculiar status as a biological thinking machine, built to survive by means of the principles of natural selection, and subject to biases of various kinds that, though they may not conform to pure logic, have probably encouraged reproductive success." (page 19)

Or this, weighing in at 84:

"There is little doubt that the impulse to build large, expensive structures whose size, might, and decoration far exceed their functions as buildings springs in part from the same kinds of motivations that cause birds and other animals to build elaborate structures in an attempt to woo mates or that cause the largest members of a social group of animals to achieve social dominance while rarely needing to use teeth or claws to defend their right to occupy the top of a dominance hierarchy." (page 159)

Tell me those don't awaken your inner editor.

I'm no slouch with respect to long sentences and complex sentence structure myself--attentively grammatical, to be sure, but admittedly a bit of a trial to read; however, they seldom survive a first draft. On rereading I usually find that I can break them down into two or even three shorter sentences without any loss to the sense or flow or interrelationships of the parts. In my opinion, this type of intervention ought to have been high on the priority list of the editor; but of course I don't know what the manuscript looked like before the editor laid a hand on it.

These two more or less random examples illustrate what sounds to me like stuffy and pretentious writing, with an emphasis on showy language and overblown rhetoric--and this remark comes from someone who likes academic writing, leans toward that style herself, and as an editor prefers to work with it. This document made all my editorial sensors twitch.

At some point early on, I said facetiously that it was almost as if the author had been handed a thousand vocabulary cards and promised points for every one he worked in.

Style of delivery aside, I had issues with the content based on its own internal logic. Some assertions and apparent conclusions struck me as incompletely thought through. The author offers hypotheses that lead to his predetermined conclusions and does not appear to consider any others. For instance, in a chapter called "Boring Places," he describes a building in an urban downtown block whose external design on one side consists of a long, blank wall. It's boring. People hurry past it. There's nothing to linger for or look at. He cites an analyst's observation that passersby on the sidewalk speed up when they pass a featureless facade. But wait. In an earlier chapter he talks about how we are constitutionally wired to seek safety over exposure--a wall at our backs and a secure place from which we can see danger approaching: prospect and refuge. A long blank wall offers noplace to hide or withdraw into--no protection. Wouldn't you rush on by? I would. But the author seems not to remember his own earlier discussion.

Many interesting and even engaging ideas are presented here, such as a connection between lack of education and lack of architectural aesthetics, for one, and the pervasive influence of Walt Disney on our culture, for another. He describes virtual environments and "sentient homes" that he finds appealing and that I think are creepy. At some point I began to wonder if he had an interest in selling them.

Well before the end, however, I lost patience with the airless, labored prose. I can't help speculating that, as with far too many other books, the author ran out of steam a little too soon and rushed his book into print when what it really needed was a little time to cool and then one more rewrite from front to back. An editor ought to have told him so. But that's not my task, and so I concluded that I'd given it long enough. I hurried on past the wall.

(not rated)
3 vote Meredy | Dec 31, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Places of the Heart is an odd convergence. Colin Ellard walks along the intersection of psychology, architecture, and urban design. He studies precisely how various design elements make you feel and shares his knowledge in an accessible form.

This book is packed full of interesting and useful knowledge. Did you know that curves are more welcoming than straight lines? That aggressive lines and sharp corners can cause anxiety? That a few improvements to a facade can physically slow down pedestrian traffic in front of a big box store?

Like all good science writers (Levitin, Mlodinow, and Kahneman to name a few), Ellard takes technical experiments and translates them into compelling prose. He translates the material of scientific journals into the vernacular and forms them into consistent narrative.

Places of the Heart is worth reading for anyone with a love of design and the human condition. ( )
1 vote StephenBarkley | Nov 29, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is generally about the psychology of place (referred to as psychogeography), though I feel Ellard strays in a few chapters that deal with technology. There are some interesting studies related here, both about how spaces affect us and how we're sometimes influenced by what we think we're supposed to like/want in a space (versus what makes us happy). A section on the use of paper maps vs lists of directions on phone or sat .nav. has me feeling vindicated about my championing of the importance of paper maps and map reading skills.

I do feel Ellard sometimes conflates an issue. Twice he talks about his children not being suitably impressed by a dinosaur bone but opting for the video of how the dinosaur looked when it was alive (also moon rocks) and this being an issue of devaluing of authenticity blah blah blah. Those are two totally separate things and I don't think you can compare them. If they didn't feel any difference looking at a real dino bone vs a plaster mold, then that's an issue to talk about. Just like I'd rather see the pictures and footage taken on the moon by the astronauts than look at a moon rock in a case (vs in a room full of rocks and minerals I will gravitate toward a moon rock).

Pretty interesting book generally well written, though I felt it strayed from the stated purpose too often.Not the best of the popular science genre, but not the worst either. ( )
  mabith | Nov 18, 2015 |
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"Our surroundings can powerfully affect our thoughts, emotions, and physical responses, whether we're awed by the Grand Canyon or Hagia Sophia, panicked in a crowded room, soothed by a walk in the park, or tempted in casinos and shopping malls. In Places of the Heart, Colin Ellard explores how our homes, workplaces, cities, and nature--places we escape to and can't escape from--have influenced us throughout history, and how our brains and bodies respond to different types of real and virtual space. As he describes the insight he and other scientists have gained from new technologies, he assesses the influence these technologies will have on our evolving environment and asks what kind of world we are, and should be, creating"--… (more)

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