Sensory Nutrition Can Educate Your Health

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Close your eyes for a moment and remember a place where you have felt truly alive and at peace. If you’re like most people, you’re recalling a place outdoors–wilderness or a lush garden. Why don’t we feel this good indoors or in cities? Too often, there is a gap between what feels wonderful and how we live, but this gap can be a fulcrum for change. No matter where you are, you can improve the sensory richness of your environment–and improve planetary health at the same time.

I’ve come to believe that the most effective way of understanding our oneness with the biosphere is by nourishing our own bodies. In my studies of human ecology, one theme keeps appearing: For us to function optimally, we need rich textures of meaningful, gently varying stimuli. For each of our senses, the optimal stimuli are those found in the living environment: sunshine, fresh air, moving water, and abundant plants and animals.

Our senses, our world

Our senses are the link between us and everything else. While our minds may grasp the concept that we are intricately connected with the rest of the world, it’s only through our bodies that we can really know that connection. Unfortunately, most of our senses have been overstimulated and undernourished for so long that we have no idea what we’re missing.

Physiologically, we are much like our Paleolithic ancestors. Our senses evolved to recognize every change around us as meaningful to our survival, nourishment, and pleasure. Every smell, snapping twig, shifting breeze, or change in color was significant to hunter-gatherers. Monotony dulls our senses, which need the exercise of responding to changing conditions in order to stay fit.

Our eyes need variety in light intensity, color, and direction–what sunlight provides–and we need the opportunity to shift our focus from near tasks to long vistas. Under constant bright lighting, our visual acuity drops off and the fatigue of monotony sets in.

Our hearing evolved in a relatively quiet setting where detecting subtle sounds was important and responding quickly to sudden loud noises was crucial. Many of us now live with a weird combination of steady background sounds that we tune out and loud noises that exhaust our adrenal glands–all without providing meaningful input.

Additionally, constant indoor temperatures have dulled our thermal sense. Some people believe that experiencing natural temperature swings tunes up and improves our internal thermo-regulatory mechanism and our immune system. As Lisa Heschong, author of Thermal Delight in Architecture (MIT Press, 1979), put it, “Uniformity is extremely unnatural and therefore requires a great deal of effort and energy to maintain.”

Even our sense of smell thrives on changing stimuli. The best time to notice how the air in a room smells is when you first enter; the sensitivity of the olfactory nerve drops off rapidly after an initial exposure.

Research supports the notion that we need rich, varied sensory inputs. Several studies underscore the benefits of natural light: In daylit schools, students perform better; in daylit retail stores, sales increase and absenteeism decreases; in the workplace, job satisfaction correlates with the amount of sunlight penetration.

Vista affects us, too. One much-quoted study finds that post-operative patients with a view of a green landscape have shorter hospital stays and take one-third as much pain medication as statistically matched patients with views of brick walls. Other studies have shown that people feel measurably more relaxed when viewing pictures of serene, spatially open nature settings than when viewing abstract art or pictures of urban settings.

Studies also indicate that we prefer gentle sound to quiet. For example, when background music is played in lobbies and halls, people will wait longer for an elevator without impatience. And music has been found to increase antibody levels (boosting immunity), lower stress hormones, raise endorphins, and lower blood pressure.

What to do?

Maybe it’s no surprise that most people feel more relaxed, refreshed and happy in the wilderness than inside buildings. But what can you do about it other than get in the car and drive? Find paradise where you are.

The first step is to become more aware of your senses in each situation you encounter. How does the air around you smell and feel? Is it warm, cool, moving, still, dry, moist? What do you hear: near, far, constant, intermittent, pleasant, unpleasant? What do you see around you, and how far can you see? What colors, shapes, textures, and patterns of light and dark surround you? Does anything move, grow, or change with time?

The second step is to become better acquainted with your surroundings and your habits. Can you point to where the sun rises and sets–and how those locations shift throughout the year? Does anything around you tell you the season or the time of day– a deciduous tree or a sky view? Can you see plants or animals? Do you have a favorite spot? How much time do you spend outdoors?

The final, ongoing step is to enhance the sensory richness of your environment. Every combination of person and place invites improvements whose nature depends on climate, budget, and tastes. Consider moving your furniture groupings closer to windows and using window coverings that allow you to vary the amount of sunlight that enters; this change both allows you to see the life outdoors and admits natural light. Increase the biodiversity around your home; anything from windowbox planters to a garden can enhance color and texture, attract songbirds, modify climate, and link you with the seasons. Introduce moving water; a tabletop fountain provides pleasing sound and masks unwanted noise. Hang chimes or a windsock to announce a shift in the breeze. Faux finish a wall; the visual texture will keep your eyes in motion. Redo your lighting to provide options in direction, intensity, and color. Move some of your activities outdoors: Dine on the balcony, serve tea in the garden, do your work at a picnic table shaded by an umbrella.

Your own body, emotions and intuitions are your most powerful source of ideas. Nature isn’t far away; it’s in your veins, your tissues and your biological rhythms. And nature is with you wherever you are: The sun shines, the wind blows, plants grow, and birds come to feed. We long to dance again with the living world, and we can begin right where we are, with small steps. Living with natural light, the sun’s warmth, and cooling from breezes and shade trees is good for our senses and, at the same time, it reduces fossil fuel consumption and air pollution. Planting trees and gardens nourishes us while the greenery increases wildlife habitat. But, most importantly, by knowing in our bodies how interdependent we are with all of life and the earth, we are less likely to make decisions that threaten our survival.

Sensory nutrition isn’t selfish; it’s our most enjoyable eco-educational tool.

CAROL VENOLIA is an architect, consultant and internationally known lecturer. Her book, Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988), is a classic in the field of natural living.