Space Affects Experience

By Christina Birchfield | 11/27/2013

Physical environment, experienced through each and all of the senses, affects emotions and triggers the brain’s stress or relaxation responses.


“Our favorite room at home keeps us sane,” says Doctor Esther Sternberg. How does one structure healthy, green environments to buffer the negative effects of stress?

Doctor Esther M. Sternberg, of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, says, “There are large differences in people’s awareness of their surroundings. Design professionals are trained to notice details. Most of us, I believe, are less aware of our surroundings, although our moods are influenced by them, even if we are not consciously aware of it.”

She says, “Good design can trigger our brain’s internal pharmacies” and help heal us. The doctor does research that can teach everyone to create “spaces that facilitate healing.” Her work enables individuals to structure their environments to buffer the negative effects of stress. Doctor Sternberg says that the principles “also apply to the effects of the larger world on health, including urban design, which are both good for the environment and help sustain health.”

Architects, the doctor says, are working with scientists to imbue the spaces we move through—the sights, sounds and smells of them—with active healing properties.
She documents the fact that hospitalized patients heal faster and require less pain medication when they have a view of nature. Doctor Sternberg recommends that if one can not look out a window at a natural view, “You can add greenery—small plants, pictures of favorite places or nature, bright color and artwork.”

All of our senses are involved in creating a healthy environment. “Fragrances,” Doctor Sternberg says, “are actually small chemical molecules that are detected in the nose and can have actual chemical effects.” Those us involved with healthy home principles are very careful about the chemicals and scents we bring indoors with which to clean or bathe. However, if one is not allergic to natural scents, these can be part of a healthy, healing environment. “Lavender,” the doctor says, “induces relaxation in humans and slow wave sleep in some animals.” The fragrant resins of frankincense, she says, have scientifically-verified, immune-boosting properties. The ancient Romans, she adds, guarded their precious healing incense resins and oils.

The doctor has created a sensory healing garden in her own home. She uses jasmine and orange blossom and lavender and basil, among the fragrant plants that she finds personally helpful to her own healing from arthritis.

Color is another key. Low VOCs are important, but so is the color itself. Doctor Sternberg says some of our response to color may be in our genes. “The default mode of the brain being to calming blues and greens and exciting responses to red. That said, individual preference is important, and more studies need to be done to answer this question.”

The doctor was the third weekly presenter in a series of lectures put on by the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences: The People College. The five lecture series focused on Happiness. Her October 30th lecture will soon be featured on the Arizona Public Media Web site in its entirety.

Noise has an effect on happiness and health, too. The doctor finds that both too much and too little noise can be bad for health. Too little noise can create a debilitating sense of isolation. Too much noise is well documented as a stressor as well as damaging to hearing. Today there are sound absorbing tiles to reduce noise in noisy intensive care units in hospitals. There are also white noise machines to mask stressful noise. And yet, one of the most soothing of sounds is birdsong.

Doctor Sternberg is a popular speaker. She has also been featured on American Public Media’s On Being radio program. The On Being Web site has a podcast entitled, The Science of Healing Places. There is also a transcript available. “How do you find a place of peace?” interviewer Krista Tibbett asks Sternberg. Doctor Sternberg is not only Professor of Medicine and Research director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, but also has a joint appointment in the University of Arizona Institute of the Environment and the University of Arizona College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. Her work has included discoveries of the central nervous system’s and the brain’s stress response in susceptibility to arthritis and other diseases, including depression.

The doctor’s books include Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being and The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.

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