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
. 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 “bubbl
e” 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 www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.