Research suggests that in the winter months we spend around 90 percent of our day indoors. There’s a growing awareness about how much our surroundings can affect our well-being. Now more than ever, it’s important that interior settings are planned to enhance good health.
Being in nature has been shown to provide a sense of calmness, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and inspire a feeling of well-being. During the cold weather months, we can bring nature inside to obtain these benefits.
The term “biophilia” or “love of nature or life” appeared for the first time in 1984. The “biophilia effect” describes the positive impact experienced when sensing nature via sight, sound, smell, or touch. Edward Wilson, an American biologist, proposed in his book “Biophilia” that people have an innate tendency to seek and form connections with other forms of life. He stated that people can benefit when in close contact with nature and would suffer if excluded from it.
Writing in The Lancet, Roger Ulrich, a professor of architecture at Texas A&M University, cites a wealth of research showing the design of hospitals, from views of nature to floor design, can affect patient outcomes.
In shared living spaces, biophilia fosters connectivity. People feel welcome, relaxed, and are more likely to be social. These theories lead to healthy changes in architecture and interior design.
Feeling connected to nature may assist with the physical healing process. In Ulrich’s frequently cited comparative study, 23 patients recovering from surgery provided with a view of trees outside their windows recovered faster than a matched set of 23 patients whose windows faced a brick wall. When patient rooms had views of nature, postoperative stays were generally shorter, less pain medication was dispensed, and overall condition improved. Evidence shows that representational images of nature such as landscapes, gardens, and waterscapes can reduce stress and can speed healing.
One study by researchers Katcher, Segal, and Beck found that patients waiting to undergo dental surgery exhibited lower anxiety levels when an aquarium was placed in the waiting area. Another experiment conducted with blood donors found that those who viewed a wall-mounted television showing a tape of nature had lower blood pressure and pulse rates than those donors who watched a tape of an urban setting or a game show. Even when a direct connection to nature isn’t available, imagery of nature has positive benefits for health and well-being.
One studied effect of biophilia is reduced stress.
“Studies have shown that positive nature experiences can lower blood pressure, reduce production of stress hormones and improve cognitive performance,” said environmental design researcher and strategist William Browning and his co-author Catherine Ryan in their book “Nature Inside: A Biophilic Design Guide. Browning and Ryan have created buildings and master projects that have been praised for their contribution to improving health and well-being with biophilic elements.
Basic biophilic decor strategies are easy to achieve by placing freshly cut flowers in view or caring for houseplants. Houseplants provide emotional and physical health dividends. According to a NASA study of interior landscape plants that could lower indoor air pollution, golden pothos, bamboo palms, spider plants, snake plants, and lavenders were all shown to improve interior air quality and neutralize certain air-borne toxins.
You can benefit from this effect in multiple ways. Cultivate fragrant herbs in the kitchen for meals and you can enjoy the greenery and also distribute them throughout the house to bring in a breath of nature. If live specimens aren’t an option, select pictures, place mats, or wall hangings that depict favorite plants and flowers.
Materials that represent nature can help to create a soothing environment. Select organic textures and materials, such as woven baskets, wood bead cushions, or items that simulate nature, such as a decorative plate shaped like a pine cone or a seashell. Many studies have concluded that exposure to wood paneling can reduce blood pressure, and similar results have been reached in connection with indoor plants. Together, plants and wood can revitalize any space and comfort occupants.
Dr. Richard Taylor, of the University of Oregon physics department, notes that naturally occurring fractal groups are easy for the eye to understand and can calm the human nervous system. Natural fractal groupings include recurring patterns, such as seen in leaves on a branch, tree bark, snowflakes, or ocean waves. Select materials with these patterns for accent pillows or wall-hangings or create a grouping of natural items as a focus piece. Selected textures can be used to mimic natural fractals, such as series of honeycomb-shaped tiles, the lined marks on a vase, or the repeated swirls on a crocheted comforter or rug. Create your own “fractals,” filling jars or bottles with a combination of sand, rocks, pebbles, bark, and dried leaves.
Exposure to natural light can also elevate your mood. To maximize the natural light in your home, place mirrors to strategically capture sunlight at different times of the day, keep the shades or curtains up for as many daylight hours as possible or think about using reflective paint on a strip of wall to capture natural light.
If rooms have limited natural light availability, install dimmer switches on light switches or lamps. Diffused light mimics the natural fluctuations of daylight, and this balance between high and low amounts of blue light is essential for a stable sleep schedule and elevated mood.
Plan to bring nature into living and working spaces. Creating an inside connection with nature can stimulate our senses, improve our mood, and provide a sense of well-being.
Dr. Nancy Berkoff is a registered dietitian, food technologist, and culinary professional. She divides her time between health care and culinary consulting, food writing, and healthy living.