Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ulrich's Trees

Back in the mid-1980s, a psychologist in Texas named Roger Ulrich performed an experiment. He studied how long people stayed in the hospital, and compared those lengths of stay against whether their hospital-room window had a view to a natural scene or not. He found that those who had a nature view tended to recover more quickly, and that the differences between the two groups was statistically significant. It does indeed seem to matter.

But this area of research seems not to have become significantly more sophisticated over the intervening 25 years. There's a lot of talk about "restorative environments" and "healing gardens" and whatnot, but not much careful definition of what it means to be "restored" or "healthy." I know a fair number of people for whom intense urban life and distant rural life are the intertwined and necessary counterpoints for a rich life; without each one, the other would become unbalanced and unsatisfying. I have a colleague at work who has 57 plants in his office; I frankly don't care much about potted plants, and prefer to have a wall full of quotes and inspiring language. Reading exceptional text (and playing a game of Freecell) is how I recover my equilibrium during a difficult workday. We don't know enough about what it means to be fully engaged with places, or soothed by places, or energized by places. And in the absence of knowledge, we keep coming back to Ulrich's Trees. Stick a tree outside every window, and we're good to go. (Not to mention that "nature views" mean something very different to different people. If the view out my hospital window was a vista of a wheat field, I would go fully insane in about an hour and a half – you couldn't BUY enough morphine to make up for that. But people from the Plains often say that they feel claustrophobic in forested areas, because they can't see the horizon and feel hemmed in.)

We're often guilty of looking for answers rather than getting better at thinking about why we're asking a particular question. What IS it about the nature view that seemed to matter in Ulrich's studies? Is it just the fact of greenness? Or is it motion, or changing qualities of light? Is it the movement and flash of color of the perching birds, or the squirrels chasing each other up and down the branches? Is it the SOUND of breeze moving the leaves, like the meditation fountains you can buy at Target for forty bucks?

If you wanted to calm ME down, all you'd have to do is put on some ambient music and set the Apple Visualizer to play psychedelic shapes. I'm hooked for hours.