Healing Spaces

Healingby Emily Morris

While working a full-time job, many of us need time to wind down at the end of the day. Fueling the body with healthy foods and scheduling time to exercise obviously boosts mood and overall well-being, but what about the spaces in which we spend our free time? Is spending time in a space with certain characteristics able to benefit one’s health? Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., explores this topic in her book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being.

Covering everything from calming vistas to music’s effect on mood, Sternberg cites numerous studies throughout his book. Many were completed by the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, which originated in 2003 and is focused on researching the ways the environment affects our physical and mental states. From Sternberg’s summary of their findings thus far, we can derive a few suggestions on how to create a space in your home that promotes physical, mental and emotional healing.

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Incorporate nature as often as possible.

Sternberg’s book includes several studies that all found that hospital patients with a view of a natural, outdoor setting were released two to three days sooner than those without one. Looking out on a natural scene helps one heal faster, and Sternberg explains the science behind it in her book.

When describing the eye, particularly “the region where signals from the retina are first received to where they are finally constructed into a scene,” Sternberg explains how these views act as a natural mood-booster. “The nerve cells along this pathway express an increasing density of receptors for endorphins—the brain’s own morphine-like molecules. Professor Irving Biederman at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles has found that when people view scenes that are universally preferred—a beautiful vista, a sunset, a grove of trees—the nerve cells in that opiate-rich pathway become active. It is as if when you’re looking at a beautiful scene, your own brain gives you a morphine high!”

If you do not conveniently have a beautiful view out your window or nearby, purchasing artwork that features nature scenes may have a similar effect. If you have the space for a small garden, indoors or outdoors, spending time tending plants will also help you clear your mind and boost your mood.

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Look at your everyday art.

Artwork you view can affect your mood and mental state. Studies have shown that pattern-less abstract art can help energize you, while art with more symmetry and patterns provides a calming effect. In fact, one specific pattern has been proven to promote peace of mind: the fractal pattern. Picture a tree; viewing the pattern the branches make has been proven to
aid relaxation.

“Such branching, self-similar patterns that occur repeatedly at increasingly smaller scales are found throughout nature, not only in trees but also in waves, snowflakes, seashells and flowers. They are called fractals,” Sternberg explains. Incorporating fractals into your home, whether it be through creative organization or artwork, may end up bringing you a sense of peace when you need to wind down and reboot. Other examples of fractals she lists are the cells in the human body, the human brain, mountain ranges, coastlines and Gothic architecture. Purchasing art with a fractal pattern may be beneficial if you are trying to create a space that aids mental or physical healing.

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Let the light in.

Another study done in a hospital proved that patients whose windows let more sun in healed faster than patients with less access to natural light. Sternberg explains the science behind the way sunlight promotes physical healing, acts as a mood-booster and helps regulate our stress hormones. The first benefit of sunlight comes from Vitamin D, which strengthens our immune systems by stimulating the macrophages. Macrophages are cells that clean up and begin healing inflamed wounds.

Lack of sunlight, on the other hand, can lead to depression. People who experience long periods of darkness or artificial light sometimes live with Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a seasonal depression. Lack of sunlight causes your stress hormones to drop, and when this happens, you may not have enough energy to complete tasks or be able to stay alert. Doctors have treated this depression with sunlight exposure. They have also treated bipolar depression this way, leading us to the conclusion that exposure to sunlight can boost one’s mental, emotional and physical health.

Ideally, you may want to choose an apartment or home with a lot of windows, but obviously that may not be doable. If you do not have a sunroom or well-lit room in your house, try setting up a quiet outdoor area, or make it a point to go on a walk each day. Avoid over-sunning yourself, of course, but enjoy the natural mood boost provided by the sun when you can.

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Choose your soundtrack carefully.

Especially if you are trying to create a healing environment, silence or the sounds of nature can promote a peaceful state of mind. Sternberg notes that silence can help us clear our heads of negativity and unnecessary loops of thought. She describes past studies of people who went camping for a couple of days without any access to technology. Their IQ was an average of two points higher after their technology abstention.

If you decide to listen to music while you relax, choose the songs carefully. While listening to music, our brains use the hippocampus to identify patterns we have heard before. The hippocampus stores memories, causing us to experience the emotions we felt when we initially heard a piece of music any time we hear it again. This can be used for good and bad purposes. If you want to create a calm, healing space in which you can easily focus, realize your goals and grow in positive ways, it may be helpful to avoid music that reminds you of a sad or angry experience. Working with classical music in the background can boost one’s productivity, but so can any song that elicits a positive emotional response from you personally. There is no need to listen to someone else’s idea of what will inspire you. If there are songs that remind you of fun experiences, try using these to boost your mood.

Choose your color scheme wisely as well.

Simply put, warm colors like red, orange and yellow provide natural energy. These may be appropriate for decorating a conference room or workspace, while blues and greens would work best for a bedroom or cozy living room at home. Green was the first color we as humans could see, while also being the most prominent color in our original environment. It is therefore the most neutral of the colors when it comes to causing our energy levels to rise or fall. Blue, however, encourages calmness and resting.

Whether you want to create an energizing home office or a restful reading nook, you can use Sternberg’s research to create the perfect atmosphere and in turn, boost your mood and overall health.


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Emily is a Michigan-based writer, poet, and social media consultant. She also works as the Communications Director of the non-profit project El Sueño (“The Dream”).

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