It's okay to be comfortable

Among the many things social spaces provide is escape. And among the many ways design can signal this is through a mix of natural elements, be it indoor plants, large floods of natural light, or wood finishes. These biophilic design considerations are nothing new. But what’s interesting is how pervasive they are. Today, you can’t flip through an A&D publication without seeing a workplace with big glass windows, exposed timber beams, and succulent walls as far as the eye can see. It’d almost be a cliché if it weren’t true. In our quest to understand what makes us human, it got us asking, why are we captive to nature’s allure and all its creature comforts?

 

Imagine for a moment you’re transported back in time. You are among a small clan of hunter-gatherers, who just like their ancestors, spend each day roaming the countryside in search of food and water. Your clan settled in this area because the forest growth provided just enough camouflage to hunt, and just enough exposure to avoid ambush. Survival is your daily mission. One day, you decide to trek out to one of your reliable watering holes when you stumble upon a tree that has begun flowering. It signals to you that in a matter of weeks the flowers will become fruit. For now, you can relax, because you’ve just secured your next few meals, significantly improving your chances of survival.

 

For nearly two million years, this was the way our ancestors lived—off the land and among nature. And while we mostly abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle 10-12,000 years ago, it left an indelible impression on the modern psyche. It’s among the reasons why people who spend time outdoors report reduced stress and improved mental restoration. Or why employees who keep a plant on their desk are found to take less sick leave. The comfort we seek and the well-being natural elements afford is not coincidental, but rather, rooted in a theory called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA).

 

 

 

EEA proposes that to understand humans, we must understand the environment in which they are adapted to live. While it might seem like a lot has happened over the course of civilization, on the grand timescale of human existence, the last 10,000 years account for less than 1% of our total ancestral experience. This means that humans today are comprised of genetic material adapted and optimized for a life outdoors. While not always explicit, we innately find comfort among nature because 99% of our genes evolved under these conditions. 

 

When we think about biophilic designs in the context of EEA, our response to a wood chair or a plant sitting on a desk takes on meaning beyond a surface-level sensory experience; deep within the folds of our brain, they are triggering one of our many ancestral adaptations. When we find comfort in an outdoor-inspired setting, it’s because it provides a similar type of emotional security that a fruiting tree may have provided a distant descendant foraging for food. It’s among the same reasons it’s believed that the gift of flowers provokes such a warm and appreciative response. Beyond the gesture, our primal brain is correlating the flowers with food, and signaling to the survival receptors that it’s okay to lower our anxiety levels.

 

As EEA suggests, the positive impact of biophilic design is more than mere happenstance; it’s ameliorating the discord we experience in a manufactured workplace. That is to say, the world we live in today, if not for these biophilic imprints, isn’t aligned with the way our brains evolved. Steel beams, artificial light, and manufactured cubicles as far as the eye can see look nothing like the lush landscapes we once roamed. An embrace of natural elements helps connect the functional needs of modern business and the emotional needs of our primal mind. From that perspective, biophilic design is not just an aesthetic, but a connective tissue realigning us with two million years of human history. 

 

 

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It's okay to be human
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