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Seeing Without Being Seen: The Greatest Place in the World?

shutterstock_111708683“Where would people go if given completely free choice?” That’s a question the eminent evolutionary biologist, E. O. Wilson, answered in his book, Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. (I discussed biophilia in a previous Single at Heart post here.) Here’s his answer:

“…it seems that whenever people are given a free choice, they move to open tree-studded land on prominence overlooking water. Those who exercise the greatest degree of choice, the rich and powerful, congregate on high land above lakes and rivers and along ocean bluffs. On such sites they build palaces, villas, temples, and corporate retreats.”

There are two key components to those kinds of spaces, say scholars who study design and practitioners who try to create spaces that people will love. They are prospect and refuge. In Designing for Privacy and Related Needs, the authors explain:

“Prospect is the ability to see what is around us, a vantage point.”

“Refuge is the presence of a shelter, backup element, camouflage, or a symbol of security.”

Together, prospect and refuge function as “environmental conditions that provide the ability to see without being seen.” The design scholars cite examples such as tree houses, penthouse apartments, homes with great views, church towers, and castles. What’s so good about them?

“From these vantage points we can survey our surroundings, observe those who approach us before they reach us, watch activities without having to participate, and experience a connection to the larger world”(p. 51).

In choosing those sorts of natural environments, E.O. Wilson believes we are “responding to a deep genetic memory of mankind’s optimal environment.” In the distant past, places where we could see others before they could see us gave us survival advantages, especially if those others were potentially threatening.

I find it heartening that thinkers from fields ranging from psychology to design to biology are all trying to understand the kinds of places and spaces that provide the best quality-of-life experiences for humans. And isn’t it interesting that, in a time of selfies when so many people want so much exposure, one of the most enduring of the experiences we find gratifying is one in which we are not seen?

[Notes: By now, I’ve written quite a lot about solitude and solo living, much of it here at Single at Heart. I recently collected links to those topics here: What’s great about solitude: Here’s what we know and The new silence of living alone: Here’s a lot of what we know.]

Mansion on a hill image available from Shutterstock.

Seeing Without Being Seen: The Greatest Place in the World?

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2014). Seeing Without Being Seen: The Greatest Place in the World?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Aug 2014
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