Our mental and physical health is directly connected to biophilia. As a species that exists within nature, we are incredibly affected by its absence and presence. Yet, we function in cities and buildings that largely lack a connection to the environment. Studies indicate that this disconnect has caused myriad issues that we now expect to be corrected with modern medicine and drug therapy. Since the early 1980’s, studies have explored how biophilia affects our physical health, and the findings are eye-opening. The act of simply reconnecting people to the natural elements brings about faster recovery rates, reduced stress, and eased symptoms of physical and mental disorders.
We know inherently that interacting with nature calms us, but actually quantifying such an esoteric phenomenon isn’t easy. This is especially true within the context of conventional medical research, where solutions typically involve pharmaceuticals and surgery. In 1981, Roger Ulrich (arguably one of the founding fathers of biophilic research) undertook a seminal study to measure the quality of human responses to nature. He tested how people reacted to images of natural and urban settings, and concluded that natural views had more positive influences on psycho-physiological states than photographs of cities. In 2008, Swedish researchers found that people respond more favorably to fractal patterns, a common type of natural pattern that can be found in everything from ocean waves, to leaves, to fires. The Swedish team monitored the brain activity of individuals using an electroencephalography (EEG) while the subjects viewed fractals with different dimensions. The subjects were first shown simple silhouette images, followed by more multifaceted fractal patterns. The results recorded significant brain activity as patterning became multi-layered and more complex. Results of studies like this one are also why active voices in the design community are pushing for fractal-based architecture to become a mainstream design philosophy.
Ulrich also discovered that views to natural areas accelerate patient recovery rates and reduce stress in hospitals. When he located patients recovering from the same surgery in rooms with and without views, patients with access to views outdoors recovered 8% faster. He has also found that patients have favorable responses to water in the built environment, as well as to horticultural therapy. Studies on the effects of natural lighting have yielded similar results. Postoperative spinal surgery patients reported less need for pain and analgesic medication when exposed to increased amounts of natural sunlight during their hospital recovery period. Three decades of research has influenced most healthcare facility constructions to include interior gardens as well as more indoor plants. Ulrich’s latest work focuses on designing hospitals and medical facilities that best aid in rapid recovery and increased well-being of patients as a function of how the projects integrate nature.
Pediatric care is equally influenced by biophilia. Evidence suggests that exposure to nature significantly improves the health of school-aged children. For example, a 20-minute walk in the park increases mental concentration in children diagnosed with ADHD, and can serve as a new tool for managing symptoms of the disorder. This form of treatment is becoming widely accepted as an alternate way help children adjust in school and at home.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, calls the phenomenon of negative behavior “nature-deficit disorder”, and links it to increased crime rates, maladjustment, heightened rates of illness and apathy toward the world. Reversing the disorder can be done by reintroducing children to outdoor activities and surroundings.
Solutions such as incorporating parks into building complexes and city planning initiatives can affect noticeable changes in adults as well as the young. Adults at risk of obesity, hypertension, or conditions linked to blood pressure, show significant improvement to daily exposure to public parks. A healthy regime of walks in the park could, quite literally, save your life, and might one day be how healthcare professionals prescribe “cures”. The sooner natural therapy is used for all building projects the better. The educational systems as well as healthcare could be revolutionized by rethinking how nature is integrated into their facilities. Typical biophilia design strategies are often the same techniques that save on energy, improve air quality and enhance usability of buildings. And this translates to two solutions for the price of one.