Are we being too innovative when we select healthcare art?

February 1, 2011
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Joe Gough Are we being too innovative when we select healthcare art? Artist: Roberto Lombardi, Vineyard View II, Editions Limited
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Designers and clients enjoy selecting artwork. Imagination and creativity are finally given free reign when the art selection committee decides what will be best for their building and community. But can we be too innovative when selecting art? Could we be compromising patient and staff health because we view artwork differently than they do?

According to environmental psychologists, the answer might be “yes.”

Along with the basic knowledge we acquire, we seem to learn a ‘way of seeing’ that is characteristic of our chosen profession … Architects see form, light, and color, where the rest of us see walls, floors, and doors … The very same everyday buildings are judged differently based on social class, sex, age, mood, and educational level.1

We know artists look at the world differently. They turn the mundane into the sublime by transforming everyday objects into intriguing images. Similarly, design professionals apply their training and experience to create edgy and unique buildings, often selecting art with the same philosophy. But healing has nothing to do with what appeals to the 21st century design mind-and everything to do with human instinct.

Neuroscientists say we are hardwired to respond to features including color, landscape views, light, fire, and garden. Roger Ulrich's constantly quoted 1984 study confirmed the significance of landscape views when it showed that patients who viewed trees through their windows recovered sooner and required less pain medication than patients facing a brick wall.2

Later studies confirmed that stress-reduction can foster better clinical outcomes: A study by Miller, Hickman & Lemasters in 1992 revealed that when patients suffering intense pain because of severe burns viewed a videotape of a nature scene (forest, flowers, ocean, and waterfall), their anxiety and pain intensity reduced significantly.2

And later studies by Ulrich in 1999, and by Parsons & Hartig in 2000, indicated: Strong evidence that even fairly brief encounters with real or simulated nature settings can elicit significant recovery from stress within three minutes to five minutes at most.2

Artwork can create a simulated nature setting, but not every nature image will reduce stress, such as:

  • Leaves in a geometric composition;

  • Plaster tree branches applied to a wall; or

  • Abstract images of sky or water.

Images like these have been described as healing art, even though every evidence-based design study I've found has proven that only viewing representational landscape scenes measurably decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and pain while improving mood.

Professor Irving Biederman at the University of Southern California has found that when people view scenes that are universally preferred-a beautiful vista, a sunset, a grove of trees-the nerve cells in that opiate-rich pathway become active. It is as if … your own brain gives you a morphine high!3

One art trend consists of enlarging natural forms like flowers. These contribute to the nature-based design themes people find so appealing but create a missed opportunity in patient, exam, waiting, and procedure rooms where stress and pain reduction is a goal.

Which do you find more relaxing?

  1. Sitting on a deck looking out over a lawn at a lake, forest, or mountain range?

  2. Sticking your face in a plant?

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