|The puzzle of surroundings that soothe...|
Say you are living in less than optimal surroundings. Your upstairs neighbour routinely rearranges furniture at midnight. The dog next door is bored and lonely and loud. His owner snarls as you pass by. Your living room is the wrong shape, the windows are in the wrong place, and the paint colour that seemed so creatively chic five years ago is getting on your last nerve.
| Say you are living in less than optimal surroundings. Your upstairs neighbour routinely rearranges furniture at midnight. The dog next door is bored and lonely and loud. His owner snarls as you pass by. Your living room is the wrong shape, the windows are in the wrong place, and the paint colour that seemed so creatively chic five years ago is getting on your last nerve.|
Then you move. And as you bask in silence and symmetry, with pleasant neighbours, a soaring view and soothing white walls, you feel something in your brain click on. Or does it click off? Either way, you feel very good. What is doing the clicking, and why? These are the deceptively simple questions Esther Sternberg tries to answer in ‘Healing Spaces’, an exploration of environmental influences over the brain, the body and (all due respect to your new living situation, but there are more important issues at hand) the course of mental and physical disease.
Sternberg, a prominent neuroimmunologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, has given herself a gigantic assignment, incorporating architecture, aesthetics, psychology, neurobiology, physiology and aromatherapy, among many other disciplines. She can't quite pull it off, but her effort does define the complex parameters of what may well be one of the biggest remaining mysteries of medical science.
After all, if your brain can make you miserable in your living room, think how much worse things are likely to be in a standard-issue hospital room, surrounded by noise, confusion, bad smells and highly unscenic views. You would think that a science so adept at scanning the brain could figure out how to soothe it with equal dexterity.
But the neural circuitry responsible for mental ease, primal though it may be, is still staggeringly complex. Furthermore, the science describing the links between aesthetic and physical well-being — the infamous mind-body connection — is tentative and controversial, and most treatments have yet to be rigorously assessed.
Bricks and trees
It all begins with the five senses, which is where Sternberg begins, too: "If you were a patient in a hospital bed, just waking up from surgery, what would you prefer to see when you opened your eyes — a brick wall or a grove of trees?"
You may think you know the right answer and why, but consider all the variables scientists must consider to analyse your decision. Among them are the position of the bricks and the trees (different parts of the brain handle near and far objects) and the colours involved (our yellow-green vision was the first to evolve; is that why greenery pleases us?) Individual patients may have different conditioned responses to bricks and trees.
Further, do garden views really help abdominal incisions heal? A few small studies suggest they may, but can the findings be generalised to all patients, all bricks and all trees? How about nearsighted patients, sunny brick walls and dying trees? And that's only the beginning. Sound and smell must also be considered, and then there is the sense of place, spatial orientation and direction, a composite experience so finely tuned that losing your way in a strange dark place (like a hospital basement on the way to radiology) can bring on the worst sort of stress, but walking slowly and deliberately along the hedge-lined corridors of a garden is a recipe for tranquillity.
It is sobering to consider that among all the great minds who have explored these phenomena, Walt Disney was probably the most successful at the large-scale manipulation of the environment to soothe and cheer the brain. Even the scary rides at Disneyland — Sternberg deconstructs the Pirates of the Caribbean ride from a scientist's perspective — are carefully designed to click the brain's switches in all the right directions.
And so a new nursing home has a Disneyesque Main Street to calm the deteriorating neurons of its residents. Then it is only a small neurologic step to Lourdes in France, home of miracle cures, where a host of environmental cues may switch suitably prepared brains to a state of rapture, releasing a flood of potent neurochemical mediators that may well relieve suffering. Thus Sternberg outlines a tentative biology of the miraculous, which, as she hastens to point out, "would not diminish the wonder of the phenomenon."