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Posted: July 3, 2009 12:30 a.m.

The psychology of architecture

You might be surprised to know how powerfully our environment can affect us. For instance, Joan Meyers-Levy, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, found that the height of a room’s ceiling affects how people process information. Lower ceilings are good for focusing on specific details. Higher ceilings are associated with more creative and abstract thinking. So you would want your surgeon operating in a low ceiling room, but artists would likely prefer the less constrained environment of high ceilings.

Windows and the view from a building may influence intellect. A study by environmental psychologist Nancy Wells at Cornell University found that views of natural settings, such as a garden or forest, actually improves concentration. College students with views of nature from their dorm rooms scored higher on measures of mental focus than those students who overlooked entirely man-made structures.

Green play space is important to children with Attention Deficit Disorder in helping them to focus. Parents of ADD children reported a decrease in their child’s symptoms after they had been in, or observed, green spaces. According to theories of Stephen Kaplan and Rachel Kaplan of the University of Minnesota, looking at the structures of the modern world can provoke mental fatigue. Gazing upon a natural setting is effortless and can give the mind a much needed rest. The Kaplans hypothesize that humans have an innate tendency to respond to nature. Stephen Kaplan states, "We evolved in an environment that predisposes us to function most effectively in green spaces." Urban settings are too stimulating with traffic signs, structures and crowds, requiring more cognitive effort than gazing at a grove of trees. Here at the University of Georgia, C. Kenneth Tanner, head of School Design and Planning, analyzed 10,000 fifth grade students in 71 elementary schools. He found that students with unrestricted views at least 50 feet outside the classroom windows had higher scores on measures of vocabulary, language arts and math than students without expansive vistas, or classrooms overlooking roads, parking lots and other urban features.

Natural sunlight is also a factor in building environments. A study in 1992 that followed school children in Swedish schools found disrupted levels of cortisol, a hormone that regulates circadian rhythms, in children from classrooms with the least daylight. In a study of the amount of natural light in schools in California, Washington and Colorado, researchers found that students in the sunniest classrooms in Capistrano, Calif., advanced 26 percent faster in reading and 20 percent faster in math than did those in the least sunny classrooms, In the other two districts, the sunnier classrooms saw seven to 18 percent higher scores than the low daylight rooms.

Because of advances in neuroscience, researchers can measure the effects of environment at a finer level of detail. By better understanding how we respond to the environment, we can better design spaces to facilitate the particular activities of that space.

Dr. Weekley is a clinical psychologist practicing in Covington. He specializes in the treatment of adults for depression, anxiety, relationship problems and medical issues. He can be reached at (770) 441-9244.

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