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Toby Israel Ph.D.
Toby Israel Ph.D.

Healing Oasis by Design . . . Probing the Mystery

"We must allow place to nurture and heal us."

On the plane heading to the Healthcare Design 2010 conference, I was reading Iona Dreaming: The Healing Power of Place A Memoir, the newest book by Clare Cooper Marcus. It moved me to (almost) tears but . . . I was in public. Cooper Marcus, Professor Emerita at UC Berkeley, has long-inspired me and countless others interested in the psychology of place.

In this book (her most explicitly personal so far) she describes her "healing journey" to Iona, a Scottish island, to retreat for six months after having been diagnosed with breast cancer. She writes:

"If we care about self-reflection - if we have any inkling that there is a human urge toward wholeness that will continue until our last breath, whether the impetus to look deeply into life is a particular traumatic event or a slow, persistent awareness - we must allow place to nurture and heal us, even if the means of that transformation will always be a mystery." (1)

Given the book's lovely, lyrical descriptions of the transformative power of nature for her, I looked forward to attending her conference presentation "Researching Restorative Landscapes in Healthcare." (2)

Also speaking at the conference was Esther M. Sternberg, M.D. of the National Institutes of Mental Health, author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being. In this equally compelling book she, too, lauds the power of place to heal. She writes from the M.D.'s vantage point:

"Wherever you are in the course of illness or healing, your physical surroundings can change the way you feel and, as a result, can change how quickly you heal. In all these contexts, communication between the brain and the immune system is vital." (3)

Interestingly (while not discussed at length in Healing Spaces), Sternberg also journeyed to a beautiful island - - Crete - - as part of her recovery from arthritis.

Can the transformative powers of such healing oases be carefully studied and applied? Healthcare designers gathered at the conference were urged to place a premium on ‘evidence based design' (EBD), data-informed healthcare design solutions. No doubt such a scientific approach to creating healing spaces provides us (and the doctors and hospitals we seek to convince!) with a solid case for designing beyond clinical "hospital white."

In this regard, Sternberg's insights on the connection between neurobiology and place are groundbreaking and, hopefully, influential. Similarly, the research evidence Cooper Marcus presented to conference attendees on the impact of healing gardens yielded invaluable recommendations when it comes to creating outdoor hospital spaces.

Yet, at Epidauros, one of the oldest known healthcare complexes, the ancient Greeks relied on a holistic approach where "the cure is cultural, spiritual, topographical and medicinal." (4) I wanted to hear further from these two writers about how the less measurable "mystery" of their holistic journeys had helped them blaze their paths to health. That conference session? Look out for the interviews I conducted with Clare Cooper Marcus and Esther Sternberg in my upcoming blogs!


1) Clare Cooper Marcus, Iona Dreaming: The Healing Power of Place A Memoir (Fort Worth, Fl.: Nicolas Hayes Inc., 2010) p. 311.
2) Presented at Healthcare Design.10 Conference, Las Vegas, Nov. 15, 2010.
3) Esther M. Sternberg,, M.D. Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009) p.20.
4) Charles Jencks and Edwin Heathcotes, The Architecture of Hope: Maggie's Cancer Care Centres (London: Frances Lincoln, 2010) p. 55.

Copyright Toby Israel, 2011

About the Author
Toby Israel Ph.D.

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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