Just how much does our environment impact on our mental health? Susannah Healy discovers our streets, our buildings and our homes have the power to lift – and dash – our spirits …
Some words become so everyday to us that we forget what they actually mean. Take “apartment living”, for example; was it someone’s original intention to “viralise” the plague of loneliness that is now so much a part of modern life? Did they really plan to keep people “apart”?
Despite the rise in the number of people gathered in cities throughout the world, feelings of isolation and discontent are rising, as so many of us are forced to move away from our family and community, in search of work.
Social isolation is a major risk factor for many illnesses. Studies have shown that growing up in a city doubles the chances of someone developing schizophrenia, and also increases vulnerability to other mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Where it is the environment or a lack in the environment that causes these disorders, they become noetic illnesses – symptoms of living without regard for our membership in nature. There is a balance to be made between our dual needs for physical space and social connectedness.
Neuro-architecture is the study of how architecture affects the human brain. Researchers in the area are providing insights into just how much our streetscapes affect us. Our moods, thoughts and behaviour are intimately connected. So, it is really important that each of us becomes architecturally aware. If the journey home is as visually enclosed as the office we left, if we are never in touching distance of greenery, or the soundscape we live in is never silent, then we become more likely to be irritable and depressed.
As the majority of the population is unaware of how our surroundings affect us, then we may put our low states down to general tiredness after a day’s work, and do nothing to remedy it. Becoming conscious of these effects is key not only to a healthier, but also more spiritually meaningful, life. We do not exist in miniature universes, separate from the rest of nature or each other, but affect and are affected by the whole.
Researchers in neuro-architecture use biological measurements to demonstrate the effects of our surroundings on the brain and body. Using apps and wearable devices that measure skin conductance (a measure of arousal), and electroencephalogram headsets that measure brain activity, the researchers have shown amazing effects on the mind and body that we are not consciously aware of. One study showed that physiology changed depending on whether a building’s façade was monotonous or interesting. A busy, interesting city streetscape engages us and lifts our mood. The same has been found for residential streetscapes.
Rachel and Stephen Kaplan are psychologists at the University of Michigan who discovered the restorative effects on our thinking of being in nature. Their finding that people concentrate better after spending time in nature inspired many other studies. Nature, they found, offered us “soft fascinations” that we can engage with using effortless attention. When we do so, we rest the more effort-full, focused attention that we normally use.
Being in nature lowers blood pressure, improves reaction times, decreases anxiety, improves attendance at school/work, reduces inflammation, improves short-term memory, reduces the risk of children developing short-sightedness (myopia), and increases feelings of awe. While some of these studies did include forest walks, other studies simply used the introduction of some plants into an office space.
The inclusion of green areas gives people a place to gather, but that space must be neither too big nor too small. It must have just the right amount of amenities to fill it, to move people gently towards each other and avoid feelings of being exposed.
Every space we walk into has a corresponding script. This script informs our behaviours and experiences in that space. We become silent in a chapel, and chatty at a party; we take off our shoes in a pristine white space, and we tend to lose track of time in a clock-less shopping centre.
Designing spiritual spaces means creating spaces where we can take time out from our endless doing and cluttering, to simply be. Spaces that encourage us to contemplate something greater, be that God, nature, our higher selves, or all of existence. Spaces can move us gently towards each other, or they can separate us. They can be monuments of gratitude to the environment for the materials she gives us, and embodiments of beauty when we build with respect of our surroundings. A building can either say that we are conquerors of our environment, or slip humbly in to place to watch nature’s grand show.
Acknowledging the ability of design to lift us towards our highest potential, is not so much a luxury as a responsibility. It would be easy for us to sit back and leave it up to the town planners and architects of the world to provide the design required by our noetic needs. But our spiritual landscape is made up of many different kinds of spaces. A chair, yoga mat, garden, pond, mantelpiece, or shelf can become our spiritual space, our nudge towards our higher selves.
The Seven Day Soul: Finding Meaning Beneath the Noise by Susannah Healy (Hachette, 13.99) is out now.
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