Recently, I had a four-hour layover in Times Square. I was taking the bus up north to visit family, one of whom is critically ill, and my stress level was seismic. Times Square is not a restorative locale at the best of times; after ducking into Le Pain Quotidien for an overpriced lunch, and unwilling to stiff a long-suffering waitress by spending the afternoon there, I found myself walking the streets in a freezing drizzle, lugging a leaden backpack, and overwhelmed by chaos.
Suprisingly good for a random choice.
Urban Outfitters provided no refuge; neither did H & M, Sephora, or any of the other glamorous shops in my path. The rain kept coming. By this time my nerves were so frazzled that I couldn’t summon up the will to obtain an umbrella; for me, chaotic environments are almost as obstructive as low blood sugar, when it comes to making sensible decisions.
Finally, in desperation, I ducked into a movie theatre and bought a ticket for the next available show. (It was ‘Argo,’ : highly recommended.) As soon as I was seated, in spacious, temperature-controlled darkness, I felt my blood pressure start to descend. By the end of the previews I was feeling human again.
A movie theatre, even during an action film, is the opposite of a chaotic environment. Every element of your surroundings is aligned to give you a singular experience; sound, light, temperature, furniture, even smell. Your nervous system is receiving a coherent set of stimuli, telling you–look this way, listen to this, follow this story, feel this emotion. You are taken on a journey, and all you have to do is receive it.
By the time I emerged from the theatre, I was able to tackle the rest of my trip with an organized mind. I’ve never been a Ben Affleck fan, but now I forgive him for looking like a frat boy.
This organized neurological journey is a big part of the healing process, and one often overlooked by modern healthcare systems, although this is beginning to change. It is one of the reasons that I design the Practical Bodywork treatment space with attention to every sense; color, light, smell, sound, temperature. Every element of the environment should send the message: ‘safety, comfort, welcome, peace.’
Architects have begun taking the structure of the human nervous system into account when designing buildings. This development is particularly pertinent to hospitals:
Macagno has been testing hospital design in a virtual-reality lab, and this work could bring us closer to that elusive hospital where, for example, no one gets lost. Other findings from the kind of research he is talking about may challenge what architects have practiced for years. For instance, hospital rooms for premature babies were long built to accommodate their medical equipment and caregivers, not to promote the development of the newborns’ brains. Neuroscience research tells us that the constant noise and harsh lighting of such environments can interfere with the early development of a baby’s visual and auditory systems.
Your environment can either promote well-being, or detract from it. This is a simple idea–perhaps so simple that it is often dismissed. Certainly it seems to have been ignored by a generation or three of big-box retailers, public schools, hospitals and urban planners. Not to mention physical therapy offices.