Research from Straga and colleagues (2023) has determined that spaces inside can be as handy for revitalizing our tired brains—after we’ve exhausted them doing knowledge work or something else mentally challenging—as those that are outdoors. When we’re worn out mentally, not only does our ability to reason and think creatively decrease, but we’re irritable and don’t get along as well with other people. Opportunities to refresh improve not only our lives but also the existence of the people with whom we share our planet.
The research team found that hospitable places indoors can seem more restorative than harsh ones outside and that both natural and built spaces have the potential to be mentally refreshing spaces to spend time. Spaces that can revitalize our brains need to be hospitable, wherever they are, and, as the Straga team points out, hospitable built spaces may be available to people who can’t, for whatever reason, spend time in hospitable natural environments. The group shared that “Visiting urban environments compatible with personal interests, like libraries or museums, may provide psychological benefits without the need to leave the city ... An applied implication of our findings ... would be to promote the opportunity for reflection in natural or built places capable of triggering it, and to design places that are conducive to reflection. ... the best-fitting places for reflection need to be perceived as safe, able to stimulate a being-away experience, and not too cognitively engaging.”
The order of spaces from those that seem most restorative to those that seem least is:
- Hospitable natural environments.
- Hospitable built environments.
- Harsh natural environments.
- Functional built environments.
- Harsh built environments.
So, what’s hospitable and what’s not?
- Hospitable natural environments include woods, ocean beaches, mountain meadows, and lawns while harsh natural spaces may be deserts, caves, volcanoes, and what the researchers call “iced-landscapes.”
- Hospitable built spaces may be libraries, museums, historic areas, parks, and home interiors, while harsh ones are industrial zones, and roads, for example.
- Functional built environments can include downtown and commercial areas and even spaces like airport interiors.
Lots of us have believed that to restore our cognitive capacity, only a walk in the woods or by the sea will work. This research makes it clear that we have lots of options when we need to mentally refresh. We can relocate to our back garden, perhaps, if we have one, and it would support a peaceful nirvana-like break, or head to a museum where we feel comfortable if that option is available to us, or take a walk through a history-packed space nearby, for example, when our brains get tired.
When a place provides us with an opportunity to reflect, to ponder issues important to us, it’s more likely to seem mentally refreshing than spaces that don’t. The same goes for places that seem safe.
Today, when so many people feel exhausted mentally, these findings are particularly handy for improving quality of life.
Marta Straga, Clara Miani, Timo Mantyla, Wandi de Bruin, Mattia Mottica, and Fabio Del Missier. 2023. “Into the Wild or Into the Library? Perceived Restorativeness of Natural and Built Environments.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 91, 102131, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2023.102131