In designing their corporate headquarters, Silicon Valley’s hippest (and most profitable) companies are turning to biophilia, the scientific term for humans’ innate love of nature, as a guiding principle. New buildings from Amazon, Apple and Google sport not only thousands of indoor plants, but acres of landscaped and woodsy grounds, and spaceship-like forms that echo the shapes and fractals found in nature.
More than just a feel-good, Walden-esque experience, a walk in the woods has been scientifically proven to make us “happier, healthier and more creative,” as writer Florence Williams puts it in her book, The Nature Fix. “Research shows that even micro-breaks in nature, including looking out a window at greenery, can help us perform better on tests of working memory and attention,” Williams says. “Other studies show that people behave more generously toward others if they are in a room with living, potted plants or after viewing quick photographs of scenic natural elements. Doctors offices put up posters of mountains and meadows for a reason—they really do help calm us down.”
Similarly, the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, or “forest bathing,” has become so popular over the last three decades that it is now federally funded, according to Williams. Exhaustive monitoring of changes in the body and brain have led Japanese researchers to conclude that only does nature reduce stress, it also boosts the presence of so-called “natural killer” immune cells that fight infections and diseases like cancer.
It makes sense, then, that this trend is now trickling down into our homes. A new profession—that of “ecotherapist“—is even gaining traction by offering nature-starved urbanists guidance in introducing the gentle but exhilarating sensory explosion of the outdoors into their lives.
The ideal “nature fix” is five hours a month; best if undertaken in deep back country, according to research cited by Williams. But if you can’t set aside that much time— or even 30 minutes for a stroll through a large urban park— sustainable design experts suggest a handful of easy ways to instill the natural world into our interiors plays on all senses:
Suggestions include creating floor plans that emphasize natural geometries such as fractals, Fibonacci sequences and curves; highlighting outdoor views (even if only on a photograph or poster), and peppering rooms with live plants or cut flowers. “When you’re in the market for new window treatments, furniture, or even lamp fixtures and drawer knobs, consider textiles and hardware with literal or abstract patterns from nature,” says Catie Ryan, technical specialist for Terrapin Bright Green, which consults with organizations interested in bringing biophilia into their projects.
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Block out urban distress signals with recorded birdsong, which signals “alertness and safety, a day when all is right with the world,” Williams suggests. Water, too, has a primeval call—which is why sound machines often come preprogrammed with the comforting gurgle of a babbling brook or the revitalizing rush of crashing waves.
Natural scent dispensers are readily available in the form of incense, essential oils and room sprays. “The Japanese love to use room misters that vaporize essential oils from hinoki cypress trees or other unguent trees, and studies suggest these plant compounds may boost our immune systems,” Williams says. “But make sure the scents are natural. Drug store deodorizers are, ironically, filled with toxic chemicals known to disrupt human hormones.”
Even holding a handful of dirt (such as when poking around in the garden) has been scientifically proven to increase serotonin in lab animals—just as prescription antidepressants do. Other “haptic” (relating to the sense of touch) benefits can come from mixing polished and rough surfaces, says Ryan. “This juxtaposition of materials with different textures or thermal characteristics—for example, cool stone and warm wood—offers both refreshing and soothing sensations.”
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