People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

Nature that Nurtures

What sorts of nature views are best?

Now that it's finally really Spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and Fall in the Southern Hemisphere, people across the planet have relatively lush views through their windows - and that scenery is attracting a lot of attention. Research on people from many cultures has shown that we all prefer certain sorts of views of nature. These desired scenes relax us and contain elements that would have helped humans survive during our evolutionary past.

Views are good, whether they're inside or outside. Looking into the distance, say 15 yards or so, requires us to refocus our eyes if we have been reading or looking at something else relatively close to our faces. That refocusing is relaxing, even if we're looking into an indoor vista. If we're in a space where the openings to outdoors are high up on the walls, or through which no nature is visible, those windows can still be really important psychologically. Natural light helps us keep our personal circadian rhythms synchronized with those of the world around us, which eliminates a source of potential stress from our lives.

If you do have a view of nature, what sorts of scenes are you most likely to prefer and find relaxing? Surprisingly, the best nature views are not entirely natural. People savor vistas that show minor amounts of modification by human beings. A meandering road or path or a field where the grasses seem mown will do the trick here. A view out into an untamed jungle sort of landscape might seem in the abstract to be just the sort of scenery that would cause us to forget the demands placed on us by civilization, but instead it simply seems upsetting. We also dislike patterns in textiles and wall coverings that are really complex - these patterns have a lot in common with thick foliage that would have made it difficult for our prehistoric selves to spot approaching danger.

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The most preferred and relaxing views of nature feature some sort of clean, fresh-appearing water element. The advantages of ready access to water before the days of bottled Perrier and Fanta are clear.

We not only like to view nature scenes from the protected enclave of our home, we also like to survey a scene with other similar vantage points. Researchers call this our desire for "prospect and refuge." Prospect is the general environment, and we like to look out over it from a space that is a little darker and where there is some sort of overhead protection, such as tree branches, a refuge. A glade of trees on top of a hill provides just the sort of prospect and refuge we treasure. In general, we like areas of trees to surround the open fields we are viewing. We prefer to have at least a partial view of the horizon.

We like nature scenes to have an assortment of green plants and flowers. This is particularly true of women. Since many flowers are themselves edible, or represent the promise of fruit to come, this desire is also easy to understand - as is our related interest in seeing some signs of bird life.

Finally, desirable views maintain a hint of mystery. We like to basically understand what is happening in a scene, but to think that if we traveled through it we would meet with pleasant surprises - that's where that meandering road mentioned above comes into play again.

Not surprisingly, the sorts of scenes we benefit from seeing live, through our windows, are also the ones we prefer to see painted/photographed and framed on our walls. When these images are framed on the walls of our hospital rooms they relax us and thereby enhance the functioning of our immune system.

Seeing nature is always good, and when the nature scenes fit the criteria noted above, good becomes great. Landscape gardeners and home gardeners, take note!

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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