Metropolis on Biophilia

Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros wrote a post for Metropolis Magazine’s blog back in November, detailing the ideas of Biophilia. It’s a great little essay, definitely worth a read. Coined in 1984 by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, the term literally means “love of life or living systems.” It suggests that human beings are hardwired to be healthier and heal faster when we somehow engage with the natural world. This is an iconic concept raised frequently in discussions of healthcare design, but generally not using this formal named concept of Biophilia. From the Metropolis blog:

In 1984, the environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich made a startling discovery. In studying hospital patients recovering from surgery, he found that one factor alone accounted for significant differences in post-operative complications, recovery times, and need for painkillers. It was the view from their windows!

Half the patients had views out to beautiful nature scenes. The other half saw a blank wall. This was an astonishing result — the mere quality of aesthetic experience had a measurable impact on the patients’ health and wellbeing. Moreover — and this certainly caught the attention of hard-nosed economists — because the patients stayed less time, used fewer drugs, and had fewer complications, their stay in the hospital actually cost less.

What mechanism could explain such an effect? One main proponent of biophilia, the noted biologist Edward O. Wilson, hypothesizes that we human beings have spent most of our evolutionary history in natural environments, and we have evolved to find good (i.e. healthy) environments pleasurable. Aesthetics, in this view that is increasingly accepted by scientists, is not some arbitrary experience, but our sophisticated biological ability to detect what is likely to be good for us.

Take this all with a certain dose of skepticism. According to the American Institute of Architect’s subpage on biophilia:

Despite fairly clear evidence of medical benefits from biophilic measures, very little research has been conducted to verify these outcomes. Ulrich told participants of Bringing Buildings to Life that there are still only about 30 pertinent studies on the relationship between views of nature and healing—despite the potential billions of dollars in healthcare cost savings that such features could achieve.

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