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We can’t combat climate change without changing minds. This psychology class explores how.

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Illustration by Renee Zhang/Northeastern University. Illustration of two human heads with brains decorated as trees, waterways, butterflies, with nature landscape in the background depicting pollution from buldings.

When Northeastern professors John Coley and Brian Helmuth tell their students to “introduce themselves,” they really mean it. It’s a clammy Monday afternoon in mid-January, and the 15 members of PSYC-4660 Humans & Nature: The Psychology of Social-Ecological Systems on Northeastern University’s Boston campus are taking turns in front of a projector. They’re going through detailed PowerPoint slides outlining their majors, family backgrounds, college resumes thus far, hobbies, dogs and cats. Some grew up going to grandparents’ farms and camping every weekend in rural New England; one works part time for a company that sells carbon credits. Eshna Kulshreshtha, born and raised in California, talks about the small arguments she and her Indian immigrant parents have about recycling.   

“I’ve never had a class where we spent an hour just doing introductions,” says Kulshreshtha, a second-year marine science major, in an interview a few days later.  In another context it might be oversharing; here it has a point. The central argument of the class is that our personal backgrounds, behaviors and resulting worldviews may hold the key to saving the planet.

A new offering for the spring 2024 semester, PSYC-4660 is a seminar in cognition, a subset of psychology that covers how people encode, represent and process information from the environment in the brain, according to Coley, a psychology professor with a dual appointment in environmental science. Humans & Nature zeros in on how those things inform our interactions with the natural world,  and the in-depth intros underscore just how different those can be from person to person based on their backgrounds. 

Cataloged as an upper-level psychology class but available to any interested undergrad, the seminar is also part of a larger push at Northeastern to explore the relationship between brain and environmental sciences, including collaborative research papers and a new Ph.D. program currently accepting applicants for the coming fall.

“I have become more and more convinced that this is a critical component to getting people and, honestly, agencies and governments to act in a more sustainable way,” Coley says.

Read more at Northeastern Global News.

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