Interior design

stimuli, trigger emotional distress and inhibit our immune system response. In her book, Healing Spaces, The Science of Place and Well-Being, Dr. Esther M. Sternberg wrote: ‘How we perceive the world around us, its features of light and dark, sound and smell, temperature and touch, feed in the brain through all our senses and trigger the brain’s emotional centres, which make us react. These emotional centres release nerve chemicals and hormones that can change how immune cells fight disease. Our awareness of space and place changes when we are ill, and changes again when we begin to heal.’4 The most interesting observation is this not only applies to patients but all of us, no matter where we are. Of course, that is particularly important for older adults whose immune systems require more support to remain robust. Our homes, particularly when we are older and no longer spend the lion’s share of our day in the workplace, become the de facto environments that modulate how happy and peaceful we feel, and consequently how resilient and prepared we are to guard off illness. That observation has led care home architects and designers to pay a closer look at how interior design, particularly in larger facilities, hamper or enhance resident wellbeing.

Dr. Sternberg described the brain as a

matching machine that stores memories and recognition of different types of objects in different places. She underscored the importance of visual stimuli given distant, medium-range and close-up objects are recognised in different parts of the brain.

‘There is a pathway at the base of the brain that leads from the visual cortex to the parahippocampal place area—from the region where signals from the retina are first received to where they are finally constructed into a scene. The nerve cells along this pathway express an increasing density of receptors for endorphins–the brain’s own morphine-like molecules,’ she wrote.5

In the same chapter, Sternberg noted Professor Irving Biederman at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles 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. That observation led Dr. Sternberg to conclude ‘it is as if when you’re looking at a beautiful scene, your own brain gives you a morphine high!’6 Given the body generates its own biochemistry of wellness when immersed in a salutogenic environment, the care home’s physical environment becomes a primary tool to foster resident wellbeing. However, when access to nature is not possible or is

limited, how can the therapeutic benefits of spatial cognition and the vastness of the sky be incorporated in enclosed or isolated interiors? The neurobiology behind our innate attraction to the sky holds the answer.

Neurobiology of biophilia Our innate, genetic-based need to affiliate with living systems, as first proposed by Edward O. Wilson in his book The Biophilia Hypothesis,7


the scientific premise behind why leveraging the biophilic properties of illusions of nature alters spatial perception. Our genetic memory of natural environments is so robust that we can trick the eye and the brain into experiencing a visceral connection to outdoor space through a properly executed simulation of sky phenomena. Neuroscience has done much to uncover how the visual system makes inferences from the outset and fills in the gaps from missing or misleading visual input. The rich tapestry of visual experience that we cognize is in fact an internal composite presented by our senses and organized by the internal algorithms - habits of perception - used to interpret and give rise to meaningful perceptions.

This phenomenon, according to neuroscientists Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, authors of

May 2020 •


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