By Andréa de Paiva
How do you feel when you find yourself in a place with little or no presence of nature? Maybe you do not even pay much attention when you are just passing through such spaces, occupying them for a short time. But when we spend long periods with little contact with nature, the effects on our body begin to intensify. Several researchers have been investigating this relationship between the individual, the physical environment and nature. More than that, many point out that there may be a "primitive need" of nature, which escapes conscious perception. And that, when such needs are not fulfilled, it can affect the functioning of some systems in our organism without us realizing it. This is the topic that we will discuss in this article.
A term that is increasingly popular to translate this primitive need of nature is biophilia. This word comes from the Greek: bio is life and philia is love or friendly feeling. But because of the work of biologist Edward O. Wilson, this word has been used to represent the human tendency to interact and connect with other life forms in nature (Wilson, 1984).
From the 1980s onwards that some studies began to appear which are a reference until today. These accelerated the recognition of biophilia both among the scientific community as well as among designers and architects. In 1984, Roger Ulrich, one of the most influential researchers in Evidence-based Design, published a paper on the influence of window views in hospital rooms on patient recovery. Through various experiments, he observed that those patients in rooms overlooking natural landscapes had accelerated recovery and felt less pain than those in rooms with windows overlooking a wall (Ulrich, 1984). In other words, not only was the design of the environment affecting the patients' bodies at levels beyond conscious perception, but the presence (or absence) of nature had a strong influence on these effects.
Over the years, new studies have been carried out to investigate the effects of the presence and absence of nature in different contexts. The vast majority of this research points in the same direction: we have an innate need for nature. Not only that, but nature plays an important role in controlling the body's stress levels. In other words, contact with nature, among other things, helps to reduce stress, facilitating relaxation.
This is in line with a theory proposed by Ulrich, which he called the Stress Reduction Theory (Ulrich et al, 1991). And several studies, conducted by him and other researchers, indicate that contact with nature, in different contexts, can help to calm us down. And, of course, when we are calmer, our perception, relationships, cognition and behavior are affected.
Research carried out in prisons shows that even the most violent prisoners, when shown nature videos, tend to present less aggressive behavior (Nadkarni et al., 2017). Research with elderly people with Alzheimer's indicates that those with more access to gardens also have lower levels of aggression (Mooney & Nicell, 1992). Studies in condominiums indicate that the sense of community is greater and the relationship between neighbors is more positive among residents of apartments facing areas with more presence of nature than among residents of apartments facing more arid areas (Goldhagen, 2017).
Such an innate need is not just related to the sense of sight, as we often tend to believe. That is, we don't just need to see nature, but to perceive it through all our senses. For example, studies conducted in Japan compared the effects of touching different materials such as wood, metal and tiles, among others, and found that only when touching wood the parasympathetic nervous system tended to become more active. This means that our body's stress levels tend to decrease, facilitating relaxation, and this can be also triggered by the tactile stimulus of some natural materials. This was observed even when participants kept their eyes closed ( so without any visual stimuli!), just touching the wood with the palm of their hand (Ikei et al., 2017). Another interesting example is the studies that investigate the effects of breathing in volatile substances emitted by bacteria in the soil. According to such studies, these substances have the potential to stimulate an increase in the production of serotonin in the body, a substance associated with the feeling of well-being and happiness (Lowry et al., 2007).
Now that we understood a little more about the positive effects of contact with nature, you may be wondering: what are the effects when this primitive and universal need is not met? Among the various effects that we could point out here, one that deserves greater attention is related to our mental health. Studies comparing people who live in rural areas or villages with those who live in large urban centers (and consequently, among other things, have less contact with nature) point out that when the primitive need for nature is not met, the risks of developing mental disorders, as well as neurotic and antisocial behaviors, tend to increase (Kühn et al, 2017).
How, then, can we help meet this need of nature? The first answer to this question involves architecture and design: we can bring more nature to spaces (both indoor and outdoor spaces). But beware, this is not just about inserting potted plants into environments. On the contrary, biophilic design, whose proposal is exactly to bring people closer to nature through design, points to several strategies that must be combined to create better and healthier spaces for the different types of public. Such strategies range from increasing the presence of vegetation, to the use of other elements of nature, such as water or animals, the use of more organic forms, such as fractals, natural materials or materials that simulate nature, spatial organization and complexity of multisensory stimuli inspired by nature, among others. The other answer to this question involves communication: we need to inform and guide people to use the different environments of their daily lives in the best possible way. We often do not value some environmental qualities because we have no idea of their importance. Therefore, understanding the "whys" and effects of certain features of the environment can help people spend more time in better spaces.
The relationship between NeuroArchitecture, biophilia and biophilic design is not limited to what we have discussed so far. Therefore, we will soon return to analyzing other issues related to the theme that can help architects and designers to meet our primitive need for nature!
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Goldhagen, S. W. (2017). Welcome to your world: how the built environment shapes our lives. First edition. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Ikei, H., Song, C., & Miyazaki, Y. (2017). Physiological Effects of Touching Wood. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(7), 801.
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Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11(3), 201–230. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0272-4944(05)80184-7
Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.