In 1984, environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich designed a simple study. He analyzed medical records from a group of patients who underwent the same procedure at a Pennsylvania hospital. He found that patients who had a natural view of trees had shorter stays and required fewer pain medications compared to patients who had views of a brown brick wall.
Ulrich’s findings quantified a theory long-held by architects, artists, and philosophers—that the qualities of our surroundings have a profound effect on our physical, spiritual, and emotional health.
This idea dates to antiquity, and for many of the world’s greatest civilizations, aesthetic beauty was nothing short of a sacred pursuit. The ancient Egyptians spent decades decorating elaborate tombs to honor the dead. The Greeks built temples on mountaintops to be closer to the gods. The Chinese believed that the spatial organization principles of Feng Shui were the key to creating balanced, harmonious environments.
The Power of Aesthetics
In recent years, advancements in technology and neuroimaging have allowed us to measure our biological responses to the arts in unprecedented ways. What happens to our brains when we look at a painting or listen to a symphony? How does color, light, sound, and smell influence our heart rate and body temperature? This burgeoning field, known as neuroaesthetics, offers insights into how we can use our knowledge of the human body to design better spaces. Imagine hospital settings that reduce anxiety, classrooms that enhance learning, and office spaces that encourage creativity.
Last spring, Google partnered with the Johns Hopkins University International Arts + Mind Lab during Milan Design Week to look at how our surroundings affect us on a biological level. During the exhibit, “A Space for Being,” visitors were asked to put away their phones, refrain from talking, and explore three different rooms for five minutes each. Guests wore a special armband that measured their biometric data, including heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature and conductivity, and movement.
The designers carefully considered all aspects of the space, including artwork, furniture, lighting, smell, and sound. For example, the “Transformative” room, meant to induce calm, featured a woody scent, natural materials, diffuse lighting, wood artwork, and the sounds of piano and strings. At the end of the exhibit, visitors received a personalized data visualization based on their biofeedback to help them understand which rooms and design characteristics made them feel most at ease.
Suchi Reddy, the architect behind the exhibit, says her guiding design principle is that “form follows feeling.” This is a notable departure from the “form follows function” ethos that dominated the 20th century, when densely packed cities of iron and steel sprang up to accommodate a growing urban population.
The Biophilia Hypothesis
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but our attraction to nature is instinctive.
Today, Americans spend an average of 80 to 90 percent of their time indoors, however, this lifestyle is incongruent with our evolutionary history. Biologist Edward O. Wilson proposed that humans are genetically wired to prefer nature over artificial environments. “For more than 99 percent of human history, people have lived in hunter-gatherer bands totally and intimately involved with other organisms,” Wilson wrote. He said that nature is the key to both our intellectual and spiritual satisfaction.
A growing body of research supports the biophilia hypothesis. Controlled experiments have shown that viewing both real and simulated nature scenes can reduce stress and facilitate feelings of calm and well-being. Sunlight can have anti-depressive effects. Nature sounds promote better post-surgery recovery and reduced pain and anxiety in hospice care. Green office spaces can boost productivity and creativity.
But around 55 percent of the world’s population now lives in urban environments and is expected to reach almost 70 percent by 2050. Our disconnection from nature comes with a cost. Studies of both animals and humans suggest that loud noise, artificial light pollution, and crowding trigger the body’s stress response system, which can have detrimental short- and long-term effects on our sleep, concentration, mood, and immune system.
Some architects and scientists believe we can address these challenges by bringing the sights, sounds, and smells of nature inside through design elements like wood, water, natural light, plants, stone, and airflow.
“Biophilic design supports both psychological and physiological outcomes,” says Bill Browning, a founder of sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green and co-author of the forthcoming book, Nature Inside: A biophilic design guide. “It results in faster healing time in hospitals, increased productivity in workplaces, and better guest experiences in hospitality.”
Cities and businesses—from spas and restaurants to offices and apartment buildings—are taking note. Last year, Singapore’s lushly-appointed Jewel Changi Airport unveiled the Rain Vortex, the world’s largest indoor waterfall. In Seattle, Amazon opened “The Spheres,” large glass structures filled with “living walls” made from over 40,000 plants from more than 30 countries. Biofit is designing gyms around the world to mimic outdoor training environments.
“Elements of biophilic design can be found in beloved places around the world, from the Cathedral at Chartres, the Katsura Imperial Villa, to the Sagrada Famillia by Antoni Gaudi and Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright,” Browning says. “Understanding the underlying science of why we respond to these places is the heart of biophilic design.”