The psychology of living environments

To create a thriving future, we best pay attention to the design of our buildings and places. Daily immersion in living environments, as opposed to man-made environments, plays a key role in creating “space in the mind” for wellbeing.

About 170 years ago a philosopher by the name of Henry David Thoreau decided to move to the country, build a small wooden shack, and live alone. Not as some relaxing retreat, but to “live deliberately” and see what he could learn.

Over the course of two years he went on to pen one of our literary greats, Walden: or Life in the woods, and intuitively discover something about our connection with the living world that is proving to be very important today.

Thoreau discovered that in order to create space in the mind for seeing “the new”, we best immerse ourselves in living environments. He found when people are surrounded by “man-made” things, in “man-made” environments, it seemingly inhibited their ability to see, and respond to, what could be meaningful and different in our world.

Fast forward to today and neuroscientists are starting to put rigour behind Thoreau’s philosophical observations. Indeed, their scientific research makes a compelling case for rethinking the design of our buildings and places.

This case comes at a time when our first world cities could best be described as hubs of “the great indoors”, with most people spending 90 per cent of their time immersed in man-made environments, using man-made technology. It’s challenging today’s predominant architectural paradigm, prompting us to think about how we can bring the best of the great outdoors, indoors.

The architecture of our mind

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us” – Winston Churchill

As summarised in The Master and his Emissary, neuroscientists suggest man-made environments have a tendency to activate our analytical and mechanistic mental processes. These patterns of mind typically prompt us to see what we have seen before, and letting our experiences fall into the categories of what we already know.

When we view the world like this, issues like sustainability and social justice are seen as technical problems to be solved. While promoting this way of thinking is perfectly fine for the reliable and linear operation of a machine or factory, it’s proving to be quite insufficient in today’s age of global disruption and ecological degeneration.

In order to get in touch with a deeper level of our humanity and foster resilience in a rapidly changing world, it’s preferable to activate our qualitative qualities.

Our qualitative mental processes include awareness and empathy, which are critical for taking new perspectives on ourselves, others, and what could be different in our world. Qualities such as openness and reflection are essential for making sense of what is meaningful and seeing “the new”. Qualities like imagination, creativity and leadership are at the core of our ability to form intentions and innovate.

Researchers believe these are the qualities that set apart creative geniuses and master practitioners from average performers. They also suggest: One of the best ways to create “space in the mind” for these qualitative processes is immersion in multi-sensory, living environments.

Reimagining our human habitats

Don’t waste your wildness; it is precious and necessary” – Jay Griffiths

These simple but profound findings are making a provocative case for transforming our buildings and places into vibrant ecosystems. This case is further enhanced by “overwhelming evidence” suggesting green design can enhance health, wellbeing and productivity. It seems living environments make good personal, business and planetary sense. But is the design and construction industry listening?

Indeed, some are. There is a growing number of communities and organisations who are using living environments as a tool for strategic advantage. After all, bringing out the best in people is at the heart of promoting healthy and vital organisations and communities. Just check out what Google is proposing for its new headquarters – a new type of business-as-usual.

Imagine if being inside was as refreshing as being in nature

“To regain our full humanity, we have to regain our connectedness with the entire web of life” – Fritjof Capra

As Thoreau intuitively advocated 170 years ago, and as supported by modern neuroscientists today, something profound happens when we maintain an everyday relationship with the natural world. It’s becoming clear we are hardwired with an innate connection to nature.

When we immerse ourselves in living environments, we not only nurture our health, wellbeing and productivity, but we naturally nourish some of the best qualities in our human nature, and promote cultures of humanitarian and ecological leadership.

These findings raise serious questions about the price we pay for spending too much time indoors in overly man-made environments. It’s creating an exciting place-based design imperative; to reimagine how we can create environments that simultaneously shape the best in people, business and the planet.

It’s opening up an exciting new chapter for the design of our buildings and places.

If you would like to find out more about how you can create a living environment please get in touch.

Ash Buchanan is a director of Cohere and an associate of the Thrive Research Hub.

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