Biophilic Lines of Sight: How the Outdoors Restores Cognitive Function

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Bill Witherspoon
Bill Witherspoon
Bill Witherspoon is the founder of Sky Factory, a fine art and digital technology company that designs evidence-based, multisensory illusions of natureTM. Bill’s training as an artist and experience as an entrepreneur has led to an award-winning studio, earning recognition for its peer-reviewed research, as well as multiple architectural design awards, including Architectural Record and Architizer A+ Awards. Inc. Magazine named The Sky Factory one of the Top Best Small Workplaces in 2010.

As more companies understand the wellness and economic impact of their real estate on employees, architects and designers will be called upon to transform them. 

In terms of the healthiest workplaces, providing your staff with access to a view of nature is tantamount to providing brain food and comfort food combined. The neuroscience behind the Biophilia Hypothesis—our innate, genetic-based need to affiliate with natural living systems—reveals why offices surrounded by visual access to outdoor nature is the benchmark of human-centric design.

Nika Offices, Rockville, MD. Design: OTJ Architects. Photo: Hoachlander Davis Photography

According to neuroscience, our higher cognitive faculties—focused attention, memory, and planning—the ones we tax the most during work, require that we recharge them throughout the day. And having access to a view to nature that offers both prospect and refuge (biophilic design’s most researched wellness pattern), allows occupants to scan a distant horizon line or gaze into the sky’s zenith. In addition to content, the dramatic change of scale in such an experience enables visual processing to facilitate one of the brain’s vital functions: cognitive restoration.

Nancy Colier, author of The Power of Off, notes most people check their smartphones 150 times per day while young professionals now send a daily average of 110 texts. As our interconnected world unleashes an endless stream of prompts, our ability to focus yearns for nourishment. The chronic cognitive drain that interactive devices inflict on precious cognitive resources like attention, memory, and emotional balance, cannot be overstated.

Altering the perceived horizon line with an array of multisensory Luminous Virtual Windows at the Healthpoint Office, La Mirada, CA. Design and photography: Sky Factory

Looking away from our work has a direct correlation to how well our mental and emotional reserves recover from extended period of focus. Thus, the outdoors represent much more than positive distraction. Multisensory access to the outdoors is part and parcel of our ability to effectively marshal and sustain our cognitive resources throughout the day.

The neurobiology of vision reveals how focused vision, which accounts for a mere five percent of our field of view, works in tandem with peripheral vision (95 percent) to map out, monitor and navigate our surroundings. However, all higher cognitive tasks that demand sustained attention over time, particularly over a narrow field of view, require regular visual breaks for us to sustain optimal mental acuity.

Even optometrists speak about the importance of the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes of focused work, we need to look, at least 20 feet away, for 20 seconds. And this is just to give the muscle in the “ciliary body” part of the eye an opportunity to relax.

What happens to our mental focus when we’re forced to sustain attention over a backlit surface—scrolling, clicking, typing—less than an arm’s length away? In time, clarity of mind diminishes. And to exacerbate the situation, what about the torrent of multisensory distractions we contend with from ever-present mobile devices and computers?

Unispace Seattle Office. Design by Unispace. Copyright Trent Bell / Unispace.

The Outdoors: A Sight for Sore Eyes

The best way to counterbalance the modern workplace’s excessive reliance on retinotopic or “tunnel vision” is to introduce what environmental designers call spatial polarity. Lifting our gaze from the dense array of both alphanumerical and iconic information to its spatial opposite allows the brain to function in what is called default-mode network (DMN). This signature brain wave pattern, DMN, correlates with the physiology’s automatic ‘Relaxation Response.’

DMN is activated when we’re not directly engaged in tasks and our eyes can shift focus from our immediate surroundings to a much larger scale, preferably a distant horizon line, the sky’s zenith or even when the eyes close as in meditation. When our organs of perception register the body’s relative (and dramatic) scale shift by multiple orders of magnitude, we experience the characteristic rest, and nourishing cognitive attributes, of default-mode network.

This is the neurobiological power of outdoor experiences.

Unispace Seattle Office. Design by Unispace. Copyright Trent Bell / Unispace.

Until now, the healing power of the outdoors has mostly been attributed to its ability to channel daylight into the built interior. As companies migrate to new buildings, those who can afford it, take maximum advantage of attractive locations. Panoramic vistas of forests and lakes, shorelines and mountains offer a cornucopia of natural sensory stimuli that reposition our body and its entrained measure of scale.

Environmental psychologists have long suggested that we perceive a strong relationship between the space around our bodies and the passage of time. And a number of studies on human cognition indicate that space-time interactions in human vision are asymmetrical. In other words, spatial cognition (awareness of surroundings) has a larger effect on temporal cognition (awareness of time), than the other way around.

The implications of this relationship is that space, for the most part, is quantifiable whereas time is quite abstract. Our bodies experience the environment around us as a three-dimensional marker; a time keeper. In enclosed spaces, our sense of time speeds up. We get stressed or uncomfortable faster, particularly when there isn’t enough sensory stimulation.

On the other hand, in large spaces, time literally slows down. Imagine yourself on the edge of a Grand Canyon overlook or lying on the ground looking up into the sky. In nature, we can be at peace with our thoughts. As our brain is nourished, problems lose their stranglehold. Oftentimes, the key connection between seemingly unrelated ideas appears quite clearly, yielding a novel approach to a previously intractable problem.

Island time is more than an idiomatic expression; it’s a genuine neurochemical state of cognitive restoration.

Urban Outdoors & the Metropolitan Blues

Unfortunately, urban views and metropolitan landscapes do not offer the same restorative potential that natural landscapes do. The reason has to do with the patterns inherent in buildings and other man-made infrastructure. The lush fractal patterns of foliage and the rich ornamentation embedded in flora and all living organisms provide an incomparable tableau of color, texture, and form for the eye to peruse. In large cities, clear sight lines are blocked by harsh geometries and the lack of distance or prospect creates disconcerting patterns.

One World Trade Center view. Photography by Unsplash.

In his essay Biophilia & Healing Environments, mathematician Nikos Salingaros (University of Texas) notes that “human sensory organs and systems evolved to respond to natural geometries, which are characterized by colors, fractals, scaling, and complex geometries.” Salingaros goes on to note that we respond poorly to structures that are not fractal.

Our modern glass, metal, and concrete towers are made of smooth surfaces whose lack of sensory information in their texture-less exteriors and industrialized gleam is foreign to our bio evolutionary experience and collective memory of traversing lush, patterned environments that are the expression of blooming life.

Filtering daylight via embedded oculi at the Melbourne Multiplex Offices. Design: Woods Bagot. Photo: Shannon McGrath Photography.

While new corporate campuses strive to incorporate sweeping panoramas into conference rooms, collaborative spaces, and public areas, facilities that lack access to abundant natural surroundings may capture some of these essential qualities through innovative building design. For example, some firms incorporate an atrium, channeling daylight through skylights that allow occupants to register the passage of time as sunbeams move across the interior of the building, signaling the sun’s presence.

Within the areas of a building that do not have access to the periphery or to a central courtyard, designers have channeled daylight through faceted oculi that direct attention to plant life and organic textures like wood, sand and clay. Furthermore, for deep plan buildings that, by design, preclude altering the structure after initial construction, one more dynamic option is available.

The Neurobiology of Perceived Open Space

Architectural scholar Harry Francis Mallgrave notes in his contributing essay, Should Architects Care about Neuroscience?, published by The Tapio Wirkkala—Rut Bryk Foundation, that in the last three decades the United States has built more enclosed interiors than in the previous three centuries. Unfortunately, the deleterious impact of deep plate buildings on our biology has accompanied this dramatic growth.

Suspended wafers of sky are also a design option for office space. Design & photography: Sky Factory.

With the renewed interest in the neurobiology of Biophilia—how our senses perceive, process, and integrate nature’s multisensory stimuli into a restorative habitat that heals and helps maintain our physiology’s homeostasis—new studies have also shed light on another fascinating aspect of cognitive perception.

Neuroscientists note that we experience our surroundings as environmental fields through which our body moves. As our brain processes our relative position to the objects and features of a given environment, we develop a sense of place based on a set of contextual cues that trigger emotional responses. As Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, authors of the book, Sleights of Mind, explain: “our visual circuits are not passive transmitters of sensory input, but actively amplify, suppress, converge, and diverge all incoming visual information.” We interpret and extrapolate what we see.

By understanding the mechanics of perception it is possible to deliberately create multisensory imagery of the sky (or landscape) to create a bone fide spatial experience that allows occupants to feel closer to a perceived natural exterior environment. While nature imagery is extensively used to decorate interiors, deliberately designing sky and nature images to work in the context of an architectural portal changes how visual input is perceived, modifying how the ceiling plane can suddenly be perceived as an explosion of volume.

This is the healing power of well executed virtual skylights. Their application in existing environments seeking redress from spatial isolation or lack of prospect has become the business case for Cognitive Biophilia. That is, when an interior lacks the connection to a natural outdoors, it is still possible to offer occupants the restorative impact of perceived open space.

A Luminous SkyCeiling, an illusory 20’ X 18’ sky at St. David’s Foundation Offices, Austin, TX. Design & photography: Sky Factory

Last fall, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture featured peer-reviewed fMRI research on the neural correlates of multisensory illusions of natureTM, showing that specific sky images can be deliberately designed to engage areas of the brain involved in spatial cognition. These biophilic illusions have been shown to provide more profound benefits than traditional decorative imagery can achieve. Such tools provide designers with a cognitive toolkit to redress the deleterious impact of commercial buildings that, due to their long lifecycles, will still be occupied well into the 2050s.

As more companies understand the wellness and economic impact of their real estate on employees, architects and designers will be called upon to transform the structural or geographic limitations of buildings. By applying research-verified visual and spatial technologies that alter the occupant’s experience of perceived proximity to natural outdoors, even interiors in high-density urban environments can be outfitted for sustainable human occupancy.

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