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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Column: About space

It’s always fascinated me that our surrounding environments can alter moods in ways both subtle and drastic.

As a psych major who wants to focus on cognitive-behavioral therapy, I pay attention to environment and the obvious changes in mood I experience under variation in lighting, noise, crowd and room size. The field that addresses how our external circumstances influence our internal processes is environmental psychology.

For optimal thinking, we strive to surround ourselves in environments that are as mess-free as possible. Inherently clean and pristine, nature is one of these environments. It serves as a retreat from the mess of the home, where piled-up belongings can both enervate and distract our mental faculties.

Like nature, the coffee shop might be another space one goes to for retreat. I’ve had a friend ask me, “Why do people spend so much time at cafes when they could just be at home?” (The short answer: to escape the clutter of the home and be motivated towards productivity by other diligent workers.)

Marian C. Diamond at UC Berkeley conducted an experiment with rodents. In this experiment, Diamond found considerable increase in thickness of the rodents’ medial occipital cortex when they were crowded in with other rats. To put it in layman’s terms, when bunched together, these rats were not havin’ it.

Humans can also experience the deleterious effects of over-crowdedness, in which cases an awareness of environmental psychology can come to the rescue. While toys were able to quell the rats’ anxiety in Diamond’s experiment, many interior designers succeed in mitigating humans’ stress born from tangible disarray.

My parents, for instance, sought help from a stellar interior designer who guided them in adorning their new Oakland Hills home. Many friends of mine who’ve had the chance to visit say it’s reminiscent of a modern art gallery, complete with wasabi green walls, abstract sculptures and a window overlooking the bay.

In addition to the spaces of nature, the house, and the coffee shop, there are myriad other spaces that can be examined in hopes of improving day-to-day functioning.

The Internet can be a space in and of itself that many people find themselves encapsulated in. Though intangible, if one spends enough time in the world of Facebook or Twitter, the sites begin to embody tangible environments, nullifying external surroundings.

A final concern addressed by environmental psychology might be examining the various ways environment can be manipulated for a desired effect.

Take for instance how the flattering lighting in a dressing room helps sway people to purchase more clothing. In addition, the multiple mirrors make it so that customers can see every side of the clothing article.

Author Jeanette Fisher addressed the fact that an understanding of environmental psychology can even be used to an advantage in the context of selling a home.

“When a homeowner is familiar with environmental psychology techniques, they thus make their home considerably more appealing to potential buyers, even if the effects of environmental psychology are too subtle to be recognized at a conscious level,” Fisher said.

In a sense, “drama” in one’s life is akin to cluttered surroundings. Just like important belongings get lost under piled-up books, clothes and bags in the room, important truths may become submerged underneath superfluous mental clutter. Kernels of wisdom, sight of the long-term and perspective on what really matters become buried under what doesn’t.

By cleaning rooms and cityscapes, avenues and homes, environmental psychologists, architects and interior designers indirectly strive to give the mind a makeover. Though their route to a cleaner mind differs from that of a therapist’s, the end product is nearly akin.

I hope this column will help people to become at once more self-aware and empathetic, vigilant of how their surroundings affect both themselves and their companions.

ELENI STEPHANIDES can be reached at estephanides@ucdavis.edu.

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