Monday, April 13, 2009

Home is Where the Heart Is

You are environment; and environment is you—Nina Munteanu

In a recent Scientific American Mind article, entitled "Building Around the Mind" Emily Anthes recounts the story of how prizewinning biologist Jonas Salk came up with the polio vaccine in the 1950s. According to Anthes, Salk’s progress was slow in his dark basement laboratory in Pittsburg, so he decided to travel to Assisi, Italy, to clear his head. Amid his ambles within the cloistered courtyards and elegant columns of a 13th Century monastery, Salk was struck with fresh insights, including the one that led to his successful polio vaccine. Salk was convinced that he’d drawn his inspiration from the contemplative setting.

With the belief that a building’s architecture strongly influenced the mind, Salk teamed up with architect Louis Kahn to build the spacious Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. The institute functioned as a scientific facility devoted to stimulating breakthroughs and encouraging creativity through architectural design.

“Half a century after Salk’s inspiring excursion, behavioral scientists are giving these hunches an empirical basis,” writes Anthes. “They are unearthing tantalizing clues about how to design spaces that promote creativity, keep students focused and alert, and lead to relaxation and social intimacy.”

In an earlier post of mine (about the circular campus of UVic), I explored the idea of the “circle” in architectural design and how it may affect people’s social interaction and intellectual performance. I also looked at a prototype circular city in the Venus Project.

The field of environmental psychology that blossomed in the early 1960s spawned a new merging of brain science with architecture. What’s interesting is that some architecture schools now offer courses in introductory neuroscience. The question, according to Eve Edelstein (visiting neuroscientist at the University of California and adjunct professor at the new School of Architecture and Design in San Diego) was “how can we use the rigorous methods of neuroscience and a deeper understanding of the brain to inform how we design?”

Results are already taking root in various projects, such as 1) residences for seniors with dementia in which the building itself is part of the treatment and 2) the redesign of a school in London to promote social cohesion and foster alertness and creativity.

In a 2007 study, Joan Meyers-Levy, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, reported that the height of a room’s ceiling affects how people think. “Ceiling height affects how you process information,” says Meyers-Levy. “You focus on the specific details in the lower-ceiling condition.” While higher ceilings encourage more free thinking, leading to conceptual and abstract ideas. A study published in 2000 by environmental psychologist Nancy Wells found that ample daylight and greenery boosted attentiveness, focus and academic performance. A UK study demonstrated that a spacious and attractive courtyard encourages positive social interaction. A recent heuristic and in-depth study by Nina Munteanu at the Vancouver downtown library determined that the addition of a Starbucks or Blenz Coffee shop to such an environment added an element of intellectual incentive, not unlike what the French outdoor cafés of Paris provide (little grin).

“Architects have long intuited that the places we inhabit can affect our thoughts, feelings and behavior,” writes Anthes. Indeed, since ancient times people have applied aesthetic ideals to increase well-being in one’s dwelling. For instance, the Chinese art of Feng shui or the Indian Vaastru Shastra aim to harmonize the flow of life-energy through a house by applying intuited truths of Heaven (astronomy) and Earth (geography) to receive positive qi or prana. Such practices stem from and have a large basis in our strong connection with our environment (e.g., biogeoclimatic zone, soils and geology, nearby water, air quality, etc.) and influences of what researcher Stephen J. Field calls “space weather”, which encompasses weather events, geo- and electromagnetism, ambient plasma, dark matter, light & radiation (e.g., solar winds and flares), polarity, and our senses and openness to these connections. Whether you’re inside or outside, these all interact with you and affect you.

So, what is your home like? How have you incorporated and enhanced the intrinsic beauty and pleasing qualities of your surroundings in the design of your immediate environment?

Friends have observed of me that I can enclose myself in a “bubble” of focus when I write and therefore can write just about anywhere. One friend delights in telling others how I literally “existed on another plane” while writing on my laptop in a bustling recreation centre as my son cavorted in the pool with his friends some years ago. I was “somewhere else”. Of late, I have been travelling a great deal from place to place, doing book tours, giving lectures, workshops and readings. While I find each environment welcoming in its own way (e.g., crashing at a friend’s place or a nice hotel), I am aware that I carry my own “home” with me. I suppose that’s because I am, according to some friends, a bit of a gypsy (my father vehemently refuted my suggestion, which makes me very suspicious that we carry their blood). Sometimes I carry my home better than other times and some places are more conducive to me doing it than others. The strongest influence on me is provided by the “life energy” that radiates from the people I am closest to who surround me at the time. We are environment; and environment is us.

As for home...Home is where the heart is.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Heather Dugan ("Footsteps") said...

Interesting, Nina. A lot of good "talking points" in this...
Years ago, when faced with a career move from "home" to a less attractive city, I visualized myself as a turtle -taking all the most important elements of "home" (my little family, my creativity and curiosity...)as my own mobile shelter. It's easier to fill in the edges if you're confident that the fundamental details are always in place.
LOL... my youngest has that bubble of focus down very well ("What? I didn't hear you...")!

Karen said...


I think I need to make that trip to Assisi


SF Girl said...

LOL! ME too, Karen! HAR...

Heather, I agree...Great analogy with the turtle. For me there is also an emotional turtle I carry with me

I love this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Home is always where I feel comfy, despite all the wonders around.

SF Girl said...


Booklet Printing | said...

Cool! Thanks for sharing this!

SF Girl said...

You're so welcome... :)

Åka said...

Very interesting thoughts. An author who really centers his stories a lot around the characters interactions with and reactions to their environment is Kim Stanley Robinson -- that's one of the reasons I like his books.

I like all ideas that have to do with using knowledge of human nature to create a better society for humans to thrive!

SF Girl said...

I know another author who does this... ;)... not naming names, though...

Will Gerstmyer AIA LEED AP said...


Enjoyed your blog on the article Building Around the Mind, as well as the entry about the circular uvic. Geometry, perception, conception and how these contribute to the meaning of architecture has long been a topic of architectural/planning discussion, along with other conundrums about how scientific we architects can be about what works and what doesn't. A wide spectrum of spatial types, with varying ambiance and kinds of appeal seem to work best when the general public is being served in that no one type of space pleases everyone, or even the same person at different times. Acceptance is another issue. As theorist Joseph Rykwert has written, no matter how ergonomically incorrect, the King wants to sit in the throne. In my own practice, for instance, with a residence it is ever the case that one spouse wants a cherry bookshelf-lined study a la English gentleman's club "Study" and/or a heavy-beam framed "my home is my [stone] castle," and the other wants a smooth, polished-surfaced (easy to keep clean) doctor's office. The former, being dark and heavy of course, doesn't balance easily or comfortably with the simultaneous request for light everywhere, and the latter's modern clean lines doesn't balance with the former's rustication or the simultaneous request to not be so sterile-looking.

In short, psychology, culture, societies and tradition, nostalgia, yearning for the greener (or as yet untested modern) grass all seem to play huge roles in wants and desires (and non-desires). When I was in school, we were given much to think about and the mildly-spoken conclusion we were given was (since our work is a testament to civilization and a record of the best that we have to offer mankind over the long haul) that we had to be a little like doctors: understand that the patient/client has a pain but is not able to really articulate what might be the best solution for it; ie, that we had to be well-versed enough in what civilization demanded regarding the human condition and blend that with a great deal of reading between the lines as our clients spoke. As one tries to convey what is so special about one's architecture, however, it never hurts to have plenty of strong data to support one's inclinations.

I am very grateful for the intellectual grounding and research you outline in your blog entries. From the aerial photo and plans I don't actually buy that uvic is a round campus but rather that is staunchly cardinal-direction oriented in almost every way and happens to have a ring road (flat) that barely influences the buildings' externals, internals and layout of grounds (hence, how exactly does it affect the average user?). Nonetheless, the concepts you write about are very apparent in other works and were employed (conceptually) for similar reasons and it is nice to know that some people recognize such geometries. Writers are a particularly fertile source of architectural inspiration because the left brain product is not bound by right brain artifacts and the "readings" they engender that we have to produce. (Borges' House of Asterion and Circular Ruins, Calvino's Invisible Cities, James' House of Fiction, Bachelard's Poetics of Space, Harbison's Eccentric Spaces, Lopez's Arctic Dreams, the list goes on and on). When you think/write about the spatial construct of things, do you imagine a reader who takes a lot away from that kind of thinking? If so, are there other sources or inspirations that you'd be willing to share? Thanks, Will

Will Gerstmyer AIA LEED AP
Principal Will Gerstmyer Architects

SF Girl said...

Will, thanks for your insightful comments. Yes, so much of design (particularly interior design) is personal taste, which may range from the mundane to the loftiest ideals. This is true of any art form, where an individual expresses themselves. Check out my later posts on the Morgans Hotel in New York, the San Diego Convention Centre, and the Salk Institute:

The fiction works you cite are great. Science Fiction, of course, is a fertile genre for investigation and expression of innovative and directed architectural design. It even has a name: world building (which encompasses everything from a person's outfit and their house to an entire civilization and world or universe. And the authors are many: some that come to mind include works by Larry Niven, Kay Kenyon, Robert J. Sawyer, Ursula LeGuin... these are just a few of many. Every good science fiction writer incorporates architectural design and environment into their work. I also do this in my SF thriller, "Darwin's Paradox" with Dragon Moon Press. My trilogy, "Splintered Universe" coming out next year with Starfire, explores this quite extensively.