Healing Spaces

Koletta & I went to a talk by Dr. Esther Sternberg, M.D. yesterday on her new book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being yesterday at Trinity Church.  She presented a sampling of scientific evidence on (1) the connection between stress and negative health outcomes, and (2) the stress-reducing potential of well-designed therapeutic spaces.

Sternberg explained how simply looking at a beautiful view or image activates endorphin and opiate receptors in the brain, giving us a sense of well-being and relaxation similar to that found in meditation, prayer, yoga, or exercise.  This relaxation response has been linked to reduced infection rates, faster wound healing, and slower chromosomal aging.

But isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?  Sternberg drew a few cross-cultural commonalities.  Interestingly, our eyes are wired to prefer the color green, with most of the rods in the eye tuned to see green.   Humans also seem to prefer things that have repetitive patterns at all scales, like the fractal organization of tree, branch, twig, leaf, and vein.  So, nature is a powerful force in grounding our physical and mental health.

While I was hoping for more of these sorts of concrete how-to’s for therapeutic gardens, some of the stats amazed me.  According to the Center for Health Design’s Pebble Project (think: ripple effect), design innovations in healthcare facilities led to:

  • 75% fall reduction in a cardiac critical care unit
  • 30% reduction in medical errors and 20% reduction in nurse attrition in an in-patient cancer facility
  • Recovery of $1.68M renovation costs within 2 years as a result of reduced patient handling injuries at a regional medical center.

Many of these innovations were focused on noise reduction, adding green space or green views, making rooms feel more home-like, reorganizing space for more social support, and improving natural light and air flow.  One design for an Alzheimers facility created a Disney-like indoor “Main Street”, which reduces patients’ stress by mimicking a familiar organization of pace.  Large landmarks (a clock, a lamp post) serve as “mental prostheses”, making the space easier to navigate by pulling patients from one focal point to the next.

Green, focal points, patterns, noise-masking… hopefully these already have a place in the healing garden, but now we have a better idea of why.

Want more?

Therapeutic Landscapes Network is a knowledge base and gathering space about healing gardens, restorative landscapes, and other green spaces that facilitate health and well-being.

Hope in Bloom is a local (MA) organization that plants gardens free of charge at the homes of women and men undergoing treatment for breast cancer.