July 23, 2024

Architectural Design Kingdom

Home is where the heart is

7 science-backed ways to bring the outdoors into your home

6 min read


A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the first name of Marc Berman, director of the Environmental Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago. The article has been corrected.

If you’ve watched even a few minutes of HGTV or skimmed a handful of real estate listings, you’re likely acquainted with the notion of “bringing the outdoors in.” But the concept is much more than just a home decorating cliché.

“As a species, we are part of the natural world and we have an inherent need to connect with nature, whether we realize it or not,” says psychotherapist Patricia Hasbach, author of “Grounded: A Guided Journal to Help You Reconnect With the Power of Nature — and Yourself.” “It’s about kinship. It fosters a feeling of being part of the larger world.”

Bringing in houseplants, opting for floral prints, using earth or sea tones — these types of choices reflect the scientific theory of “biophilia,” which proposes that humans have an innate desire to connect with nature, explains Marc Berman, director of the Environmental Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago. Also at play is “attention restoration theory,” the concept that exposure to nature relieves mental fatigue. Together, these theories have given rise to “biophilic design,” an approach to interiors that encourages incorporating natural elements.

As proof of its power, consider a 2020 study from the journal Environment International, in which Harvard researchers had participants complete two stressful tasks — one involving memory, the other math — in different environments, simulated by virtual reality. The participants in the biophilic environments — with green plants, water, natural materials and/or an outdoor view — showed consistently better recovery from the stressors, both physiologically (based on changes in heart rate and blood pressure) and psychologically (based on measures of anxiety) than those in the more sterile space.

Want to glean the benefits of nature inside your own home? Here are easy — and research-backed — ways to get started.

Use natural colors and images

Incorporating earth tones or colors from nature (especially greens and blues) throughout your home can have a soothing effect. In addition, including photographs or paintings of scenes from the outdoors can be calming. “Exposure to natural images pushes the brain into a more rested state,” says Berman. “For a lot of us, nature signals being on a break.” A 2019 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that viewing photographs, 3D images and videos of natural landscapes led to more relaxed body responses than looking at other images.

Research has found that exposure to indoor plants is associated with reductions in stress, depressive symptoms and negative emotions. Another study found that taking care of plants can lead to feelings of calm and comfort because it suppresses activity in the sympathetic nervous system (which kicks into high gear when you’re under stress). But keep in mind that from a visual perspective, “a cactus won’t do it for you the way a ficus will,” says Sally Augustin, whose firm Design With Science uses principles from neuroscience to create spaces that foster productivity, well-being and positive mental states. That’s partly because a ficus, as well as many other leafy plants, has softer, more curved edges, which are more comforting to us than sharp or jagged edges, Augustin says.

Which houseplant is right for you? Take our quiz!

Common in nature, fractals are complex patterns that repeat at varying sizes and scales (think of the repeating patterns in the fronds of a fern, the petals of a flower or a head of Romanesco broccoli). “The repeated patterns provide a sense of order and our eyes are naturally drawn to them,” Hasbach says.

Researchers from Sweden found that looking at natural fractals induces increased alpha-wave activity in people’s brains, which is associated with a relaxed but wakeful state. Meanwhile, studies in a 2021 issue of Frontiers in Psychology found that people prefer fractal patterns in human-made spaces because they strike a balance between being engaging and relaxing.

Recognize which natural environments speak to you

“People are attached to places just like they are to people,” says Thomas Doherty, a clinical and environmental psychologist in Portland, Ore. Once you identify which natural settings appeal to you most, Doherty recommends gathering meaningful mementos from them — such as seashells from a favorite beach or pine cones from a beloved trail — and putting those in bowls or baskets around your home.

New York City clinical psychologist Susan Bodnar, a specialist in ecopsychology, recommends bringing in “things that remind you of important experiences you’ve had outside. … When you bring your relationship with the outdoor world inside, it’s powerful, and it gives you more access to your sensory self.”

Tap into nature’s scents

Consider bringing aromas from the natural world indoors, with fragrant flowers (such as freesia, roses or lilies) or essential oils such as lavender or rosemary. Research published in a 2022 issue of the journal Ambio found that smells associated with woodlands are linked with people’s memories and contribute to their greater physical and emotional well-being.

“Scent is very primordial — it’s very basic to how we approach the world, and we all have scent memories,” says Augustin. But whatever smells from nature you decide to include in your space, “you always want the scent to be subtle,” she says. “How much you incorporate is going to depend on air flow in a room.”

If your home is near trees or water, consider opening your windows and letting the soothing sounds of birdsong or waves come in, Hasbach advises. If it isn’t, you can use an app or playlist to bring the sounds of birds, rain, the ocean or other elements of nature into your home. Or, you could set up a small fountain and treat yourself to the gentle sound of burbling water.

In a 2021 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers analyzed 18 studies on the health benefits of listening to natural sounds and found plenty of evidence that exposure to them improves mood. Water sounds sparked the greatest boost in positive emotions, while bird sounds had the biggest impact on reducing stress and annoyance. “Our brains evolved in nature so they’re more attuned to natural sounds, which have a nice balance between complexity and predictability,” says Berman.

Pay attention to textures

Next time you’re ready to upgrade furnishings, consider fabrics and materials that evoke nature. “Humans respond positively to soft textures, like flannel or chenille, which is similar to most mosses,” says Augustin. In a 2019 study investigating 21 textures, researchers from Russia found that people associate soft materials, such as fur, velvet and natural silk, with happiness. You might also consider choosing rugs or upholstery that conjure the outdoors, whether with floral patterns or fractals.

Research has found that touching a wood surface has more calming effects on the brain and nervous system than touching other types of surfaces. Participants in a study in a 2022 issue of Frontiers in Psychology naturally had a penchant for curved contours in interior design and found them relaxing. This may be because “curved shapes mimic the patterns of nature,” Berman says. “It’s not just something nice or an amenity — we need nature and we’re kind of getting divorced from it, so we need to bring more nature into our homes.”

Stacey Colino is a writer specializing in health and psychology. On Twitter, she’s @ColinoStacey.


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