Esther Sternberg — The Science of Healing Places
October 24, 2013

The light and smells in places like hospitals can often depress us. And, our favorite room at home keeps us sane. But why? Immunologist Esther Sternberg explains the scientific research revealing how physical spaces create stress and make us sick — and how good design can trigger our "brain’s internal pharmacies" and help heal us.

comment

35 reflections
read/add yours

Share

Shortened URL

Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog

A sacred space doesn't have to be a cathedral or a mosque or a synagogue. For our guest essayist, it's a city square she shared with a friend with cancer. Read this lovely essay and then tell us what is your sacred space?

A spiritual nomad looks to the night sky and yoga to "cultivate sacred places within my own mind."

A week-long retreat to rural Wisconsin takes us to Frank Lloyd Wright’s summer home Taliesin, and Deer Park Buddhist Center for a meditation on healing and the space we inhabit.

You can become submerged in beauty within moments, this classical flashmob is a perfect reminder.

"Layers upon layers of perfectly manicured lawns, sparkling fountains, and pruned foliage scale the side of Mount Carmel."

1

Send us your photos of garden spaces and places that serve as sources of contemplation and inspiration for new ways of looking at and thinking about the deeper meaning of things.

"We praise you for the oceans and for the fresh streams, for the endless mountains, the trees, the grass under our feet. We praise you for our senses, to be able to see the moving splendour, to hear the songs of lovers, to smell the beautiful fragrance of the spring flowers."

If you could stand in someone else's shoes... Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently? A video that speaks to the connections we all need.

About the Image

The Island of Everlasting Happiness at the Chicago Botanic Gardens.

Your Comments

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><span><div><img><!-->
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Embed content by wrapping a supported URL in [embed] … [/embed].

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Comments

I hope that more and more hospitals, clinics, doctors offices and work places take note of the information Dr. Sternberg is revealing. When architects and designers can work to help make spaces that give us a sense of harmony rather than only fulfill a function the world will be a much happier place. Http://www.debramoffitt.com

I do like the approach taken here as better the development strategies best will be the surroundings and the performance obtained by them.

I'm so happy that people are finally noticing how important environment is for healing. Thank you for this interview. I am curious as to what Esther Sternberg thinks of dowsing? Dowsing can change and raise the energy of the place you are in and in the person also.

I really enjoyed the interview with Esther Sternberg, especially her comments on labyrinths. I suggest you follow up with an interview of Dr Lauren Artress who has done more to educate people about labyrinths than any other person. Shr runs training courses for facilitators and teaches the history of labyrinths. They appear in many cultures. Contact Dr Artress through Grace Cathedral , San Fransico or through the Veriditas web site

I am presently reading Julian Young's new book about Nietzche. You can't read about Nietzche without reading about Schopenhauer and Wagner. You can't read about any of them without reading about the philosophy of music....without reading about the numinous. I found lots of common strings in that book and your program.

I enjoyed the show. Dr. Sternberg alluded to the story of the Three Wise Men and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In his account of his travels to the East, Marco Polo claimed to have passed through the country whence the Magi originated, and heard the reason behind these offerings. According to the tradition Polo heard, the gifts presented to the young Christ child were a test. The Magi wanted to know whether Jesus was an earthly king, a heavenly king, or a physician. The answer would be determined by which of the three gifts the child reached for first: if He chose the gold, it indicated He was an earthly king; if the frankincense, a heavenly king; and if the myrrh, He was thus to be a physician.

It was not said which of the three gifts the child reached for first.

I, too, appreciated the discussion about labyrinths. I make quilted finger labyrinths for people who can't walk them; at her request, I put one under the head of a friend who was in hospice and very agitated, and she immediately calmed down. These patterns create interesting vibrations/energies; Dr. Robert Gilbert of the Vesica Institute would be a great follow-up interviewee about such things as sacred geometry, bio-geometry, energetics, and more.

Thank you for opening this line of thought, Laurel ... Many more parameters beyond the visible were not mentioned in this show and await exploration -- someday even by Science, when appropriate measuring devices become available. In regard to sacred geometry, energetics, and creation of sacred spaces, also see Freddy Silva et al.

I wish to add that portable 'sacred spaces' (altars) are used by many religions, from the simple two-dimensional icon, to small boxes that open to display diorama-like displays, to three-dimensional spaces (by placement of drawings, candles, rocks, etc. ) that can be set up anywhere. Also immediately comes to mind a portable labyrinth I have walked - drawn on a large piece of cloth, placed on a floor during its use, and then easily rolled up like a rug for transport to a new location or storage.

Finally someone is confronting architects with information they've so effectively ignored in search of low bids. America is polluted with stressful non-places because of "costs". I visited an architecture program recently and no one was interested in thinking about better public spaces. I'm tempted to change professions to throw a wrench in their paradigm of pretty houses for rich people and cookie-cutter trash for corporate/public works.

I also think arthritis plays a part in awareness of place. I've had arthritis for about 7 years and my sensitivity to surroundings has increased exponentially. When you can't move as effectively you can't ignore things and have to sit and feel. You start to recognize what's valuable in the structure of the environment.

I have always had a passion for architecture but my profession is a physician. A comfortable space can be defined. This comfort is healing. There is a book I consider the bible on this topic, "A Pattern Language", by Christopher Alexander and the Center for Environmental Structure. He applied science to architectural design in the late 1960s and 70s resulting in this book. I go back again and again to this book. When I worked with an architect to design my office, I lread this book. In designing my new home I am reading this book again. Consider interviewing Christopher Alexander as the next step in this topical journey. He is a fascinating person. Several of his students at UC Berkeley continue to run an architecture firm in Berkeley today (JSW-D Architects). These architects originated the ideas made popular by Sarah Sasanka. Thanks for a great show.

The program is a weekly event that is most valuable tohandling life.

I enjoyed the show, but I wish Krista hadn't interrupted her guest so much. Conversation is important, but I wanted to hear more of Easter Sternberg. i plan to listen to the full interview, and I'm hoping I hear less of Krista and more of her guest. i mean this as a respectful criticism, not a put down. Krista is very knowledgable. But I want to hear her guest.

I didn't find this at all disturbing. I think Krista's 'interruptions' are reelvant and helpful.

As an architect and planning consultant, I find Dr. Sternberg's and your program's interest in these issues of environmental design and human wellness critically important to our human present and future well-being and our very survival. Thank you ! I have found as I've worked to survive in the professional and business world within which we designers must practice, that our culture does not recognize or understand what design-oriented architects know and understand about our well-being and the design of our environments. I was trained and have 40 yrs of experience in understanding how the environment affects us and how we can positively affect the environment which in turn benefits our well-being; not every architect is tuned in nor trained in this. Many are taught like engineers to build things without much appreciation of the impact those things have on all of us. My professors used to tell us, "Unfortunately, today architects can build almost anything, so it is all the more important that we should ask ourselves "What should we build here; what ought to be built here?" rather than just deciding to build something we might think would be "neat" just because we are able. This was a cal for a form of contemplation and reflection about planning and design that our current culture does not encourage in the rush to "get things done." I hope Dr. Sternberg's findings will reach those non-architect, non-designer "business-oriented" and "business-financially justified" decision-makers whose choices allow or do not allow architects and planners to help us determine what we really SHOULD build. Thank you ! I hope you will do more with this topic of design of our environments and our health and well-being.

About 10 years ago I read an email story that relates to today's program. I have not been able to relocate it so I am not able to give credit to the author. It may have been anonymous as well. It made such a powerful impact upon me that I have never forgotten it.

There were two hospital patients sharing a recovery room. One was next to the window and the other was not. Bob was by the window and as a caring, giving soul, he described to Sam, the man without a window, the beautiful each day. He described the trees, a rainbow, and one day a parade and group of children playing in a park. Same was a hostile and angry soul. He began to seethe about Bob having the window. He thought of nothing else but getting that window bed. Finally one night in a self-induced fit of rage, he suffocated Bob with a pillow. Then, he looked out the window and saw only a brick wall. He was overcome by the horror of his act and the disbelief that Bob had been lying to him all these weeks. Bob had never told Sam that he was blind. He was just trying to make the stay in the room better for both of them.

There was never a mention of SCHOOL environments in this discussion I taught in numerous buildings in my 45 year teaching career and I believe there's a direct relationship between health and behavior of students and teachers and the physical environment. . In one windowless school where the air quality was determined to be adequate I was frequently sick. In contrast a building with a butterfly garden and classroom with a wall of windows I had seven years without a sick day. Any research done on this? Enjoyed this show!

Thank you for putting together this great show today. As an Interior Designer practising in the Healthcare field for many years, this material is right on target with what we are working with on a daily basis. Raising wider awareness of the benefits to creating more supportive environments for healing will help build the case. I notice a tendency to blame architects for the poor quality buildings and spaces that we have all experienced over the years. While there may have been a lack of attention to this issue by the design professionals in the past, the real drivers tend to be on the Owner's side. The pressures of cost control and re-imbursement structures have more influence on the built envirnoment than the best intention of the design team. Making the case with measureable outcomes and Evidence Based Design will go a long way to improving everyone's experience in Healthcare settings. Thanks again for this conversation.

What a great interview. First heard it while out driving to shop for groceries. I work in Health Information Technology, but my interests extend to the gamut of health and healing. I will have to cite this interview and Esther Sterberg's books on my REC blog.
http://regionalextensioncenter.blogspot.com

I've posted about "health impact assessments, of which "evidence based design" is surely a component.

Have any of you read "God's Hotel"? Another great take on health care and healing.

I so agree with this concept. When I am feeling blue I go walk on a road that follows a river and has a natural border where butterflies, birds and flying fish all take me to a happy place. I get refreshed and have a new take on everything after I finish. I also accompanied a friend to her chemotherapy visits. The "cancer center" had a TV court show playing and innumerable amounts of information data on the walls. Ugh! Made me feel depressed just entering the facility. I thought they needed to watch the movie "Patch Adams" or do something to encourage healing with their environment.

I wanted to share this amazing story and reflection from my friend which she wrote as she accompanied her husband on his referral to Mayo Clinic for evaluation of his diagnosis of ALS.

"The Pool at Bethesda"

Dear Friends,

We have just completed our first day here in Rochester at the Mayo, or as friend, Paul Canavese, calls it, the Condiment Clinic. The sheer magnitude of the physical campus astounds us. The tall, shining edifices rise up out of the surrounding farmland like some sort of City of Oz. They are connected by seven stories of skybridges and a pedestrian subway that seems to go on forever.

Lovely pocket parks and gardens are tucked in between buildings given by grateful donors, many of them patients at one time or another, and named in their honor. The buildings themselves have evolved over fifty years with newer construction beautifully connected and reflective of the earlier age. Really wonderful art is everywhere we look; the collection honors all eras and genres. These folks know that when it's real, art heals.

Right after dropping off a specimen at a place that looked like a bank with twenty "tellers" efficiently handling all sorts of tests, we heard a pianist playing somewhere nearby. We were still agog over the five large Miro pieces on a nearby wall, but we headed into what we discovered was the stunning Atrium, pictured above.

It was crowded at the time, filled with folks who had stopped to listen to two women, one playing the piano and one singing. As we walked up, the singer began to sing Patsy Cline's "Crazy." What could we do?
It was the first song we had ever danced to and the song we had danced to at our wedding, nine years and one month to the day before.

Randall put down his briefcase filled with doctors reports and test results, took me in his arms, and danced me all over that floor. I have to say, it was glorious! I only had eyes for him, but when it was over and folks were applauding, we became acutely aware of how many people gathered around were in wheelchairs or were with those who were.

We suddenly realized that in that spontaneous moment of celebration, we had been dancing on behalf of the life and love that lived in each person gathered together in that place. It was one of many moments today in which we experienced the tender unity of vulnerability.

From the moment we walked through the entry, lined with hundreds of waiting wheelchairs, we found ourselves thinking of the Pool of Bethesda. We imagined encountering Jesus at this Rochester pool of suffering and hope where we had come like so many others, longing to be near some angel who would stir our waters with a miracle.

We imagined Jesus asking us that essential question: "Do you want to be healed?"

We thought we might have heard him say, "Then pick up your feet and dance."

We love you.
Sharon and Randall

Written Jun 25, 2012 by Sharon Pavelda and Randall Mullins

The segment about hospitals being designed to serve the equipment and not the patients really rang true for me. There's more about hospitals and the work of an organization called Planetree in this NPR story. It doesn't make sense to me that there's so few hospitals designed for patient-centered care.

There is such beauty in upstate NY in the Finger Lakes Region with natural water falls, gorges, lakes, Queen Catherine's trail, and a lovely labyrinth at Amazeing Acres...which also features the Finger Lakes Hostel. Check it out sometime.

Great interview. Sorry it took two months to get around to listening.
I listened to the unedited interview. I always find them more interesting.
In the interview that was no reproduced for the show, Dr. Sternberg speaks about stress response. I encounter a lot of stress in my work, both on an analytical level and on a interpersonal one. Several questions came to mind that I'll share.
1. I'm interested in the social dimension of healing, and in particular the social dimension within organization and institutional structures? I get the structural component and how it affects us at the sensory level. I'm interested in research that addresses social interactivity.
2. Self-confidence seems to be an aspect of the capacity to handle stress positively. Has there been research done on confidence as a psycho-neuro memory of past positive stress responses?
3. I'm interested in healing, and in particular people who have a gift for imparting healing. I see them as catalysts in a context of, shall I say, psycho-neuro connections that exist in human relationships. For example, does a person who is peaceful, or as Edwin Friedman describe the effective leaders of religious congregations as an "unanxious presence", foster a social environment where their positive stress responses are become a shared experience between people, that the social environment and by extension the organizational environment change to have a more positive stress response corporately?
These are the questions I have. Thank you.

This is fascinating. I think I've always known about this in the back of my mind, but I've never really took the time to step back and acknowledge just how important our environment is to our emotional well-being. I've tried different methods to help with depression over the years, and I've noticed that even simple things like lighting some incense or a lavender candle can make a tremendous impact on my overall mood. I have a new mission for the next few months: figure out what "comfort" means to me and making my apartment as close to that ideal as I can. Thank you for the great interview. -Carrie Martin.

I chose to listen to The Science Of Healing..... and I LOVED it. She starts out taking about a study they did a clinical study and took clinical data. It was well controlled They took patients in recovery and put them into a setting with brick walls, barely any window to look out of, and then they took the other patients into a room with windows out looking a nice scenery, stain glass windows, lots of light and really colorful. They found that those patients felt more alive had less neg. complaints,orderes fewer pain meds and were dicharged weeks earlier than the other half.

She talked about scientific basis of the mind-body connection. How the brain helps us heal both emotionally and physically, and how we can each personally take control of our own health. They said in the interview that people who feel alive respond in more of an appropriate manner. Like Disney/Amusement parks when you go on a ride you feel that sort of "zing" and it gives you energy like a stress reliever, and then people love that and thrive on it, looking to go back for more. They did also mention which I thought was cool, the St.Paul cathedral church, how an architect Christoper R. designed it in a great manner, very beatiful.

So, what comes to my mind about the clinical study is my work. We've talked about getting it totally maken over. Adding some bright vibrant colors to it, and make it more appealing to the eye, it is a pediatric clinic. I know that in some clinics they like to stick with more settled colors like a fairview or allina or what not. And I understand because colors and settings can mess with different minds and long term illnesses. But our work is a Pediatric clinic only and kids come in and boy do you have to try and make them happy and accept the setting in the first place. I take into concideration, Childrens Hospitals and Clinics, have you ever walked into one? They are amazing. They are always up to date on colors, seating, space, everything. I could see how a child would walk in there and right away turn positive in that kind of setting. Now mind you it is not a cure, but it could help the healing process when you are dealing with an illness, or even a terminal illness maybe it could help over look that and make a kid live longer. Without windows or scenery of the outside, one could become really depressed. Look at a prison, all there things/life are stripped away from them. And thats it, no hope for anything more. Even the mental institutions full of brick windows... wouldn't that be kind of shitty? Of coarse they get even more crazy just being in there. But yes your environment can cause major anxiety or depression and you are the one that has got to control that.

As a full time caregiver of my wife who is on dialysis three days a week and a retired system engineer I've been investigating how to create healing places at home and on the go. Has anyone developed mathematical models of places that heal and calm our sensory and nervious systems that could help the designer in designing healing places?
Thanks,
Barry
Barry W. Kennedy
www.barrykennedy.com

And don't forget about Feng Shui, the ancient art of harmonizing the environment jointly with human existence. A great overview at Wikipedia. This art-filled knowledge is more prevalent over the centuries than we remember. I'm glad we are "re-discovering" this commonality and connection between the spiritual and the physical.

A wonderful interview. I listened to this interview early on Sunday morning while still in bed. Images of many beautiful cathedrals, mountain vistas and ocean sunsets flashed through my mind. These places are etched in my memory and can be recalled at any time. This is something that we all need to be reminded of, especially during times of stress (most everyday). Or when we need a mini vacation. but no time to hit the road. Thanks, On Being, for bringing Esther Sternburg's work to the show. I am sure that many will be inspired to dig deeper into the benefits of practicing the art of appreciating our surroundings.

Friendship Gardens, in Ontario Canada consists of ten large gardens and over 450 trees, on our hospital grounds.
The volunteers in the community raised the funds, helped design, build and maintain these gardens and trees, as
we feel the healing and beautiful benefits of these gardens and trees are very significant to the patients, staff and
visitors.
Please feel free to visit our website:www. friendshipgardens.ca
to see why we are believers in the healing benefits of gardens.

As an educator of teaching the art of observation through the senses, with keeping a nature journal I listened so intently and
found Esther to be reaffirming of how important our senses need to be treasured. The interview was so inspiring for all levels of
environment occupations, the sciences, architecture and life in general. Excellent interview and love the knowledge Esther has
shared thru On Being.
With appreciation I look so forward to listening to this
radio broadcast Sunday mornings. It is rich filled with so much learning and inspiration. Thank you so much.

I listened early Sunday morning a few days after having outpatient surgery. Surgery went well, staff was attentive, and follow-through was excellent, but hospital experience was dreary. Afterward, I wrote down the factors I felt were contributing to that feeling. It was eery: As I listened to Sternberg describe the "typical community hospital", her words described the building I'd been in exactly. There is no excuse for it. The building is located in a beautiful spot with outstanding views of mountains-- but most windows face away from them. There were no windows for patients in the pre-op unit. The building is a blob located with a large area of land surrounding it. The parking lot is huge rather than broken up and walkable. A much-vaunted "healing garden" is located only feet away from a heavily traveled city road. The surgical pre-op has no windows that can be seen out of; it plays what I call "bar music" (the kind that makes people a bit edgy so they drink more) instead of calm, soothing music. Patients must be taken down a long hallway, then left in a windowless holding area prior to surgery. The hospital has a corporate "sponsor" (instrumental in founding the hospital long ago) who has provided the facility with many high-tech diagnostic and treatment devices. And it is exactly as Dr. Sternberg pointed out: the building is built around the machinery, and gives little attention to human needs. Entering it is like going into a long bland cave designed to resemble a board room. I was so happy my surgery was outpatient; I could not have stood to stay there longer. After surgery, it felt so good to come out into the light, go home, and look out my windows at the trees and the clouds, feel the light. I wish I could show you the difference in how the spaces feel. My house is old and a bit run-down, but it is a friendly, welcoming space. Why can't that hospital (undergoing still more expensive technological renovation) give that healing experience to the people who could not go home the way I did?

Krista: This is from your interview with Gorden Hempton called "The Last Quiet Places:"

Mr. Hempton: But you have brought up something really important to me and that is about our ancient past. When I go to a quiet place, I get to challenge assumptions. And one of the major assumptions is that the human ear is tuned to hear the human voice. If that were true, that's an assumption that audiologists, scientists who study human hearing, have believed for a long time, that our ears evolved to hear the human voice.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Hempton: But if, if — yeah, I know. But if that were true, we'd be the first species on planet Earth, OK, to have evolved so separate and protected from the rest of nature.

So my natural curiosity was to look at the range of human hearing and these equal-loudness contours. And we have a very discreet bandwidth of supersensitive hearing and that's between 2.5 and 5 kilohertz in the resident frequencies of the auditory canal. Is there something in our ancestors' environment that matches our peak hearing human sensitivity? Because most of what I'm saying right now, except for the "s" sounds and the high-pitched sounds, falls well below that range. And, indeed, there's a perfect match: birdsong. Birdsong [laugh].

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Mr. Hempton: Why would it have any benefit to our ancestors to be able to hear faint birdsong? Why would our ears possibly have evolved so that we could walk in the direction of faint birdsong? Birdsong is the primary indicator of habitats prosperous to humans. Isn't that amazing? Now when you're in a quiet place, what is the listening horizon? If you ask a person that lives in a city, they might take a wild guess and say, "Oh, you can listen for a mile." Right they know it's a trick question, so they're going to pick something really big. You can listen for a mile. You ask somebody in the country? Oh, you can listen for three or four miles. And I've heard sounds 20 miles away. If you do the math, that is the size of 1,276 square miles. Do you know what it's like to listen to 1,276 square miles when the sun is rising?

(Sound bite of birdsong)

Laird Hamilton takes on Teahupoo

I agree that stress can create disease, but it also spurs us to greatness and change. This video describes the religious experience of catching the perfect wave and being in the flow. I just read Thich Nhat Hanh's book, "The Long Road Turns to Joy." It's the imagination that does all the work. It's time for us to start taking all the information we're gathering and creating more comprehensive solutions. This is exciting work you're doing, Krista.

Great program and great music selections! I found Krista's point about placebo effect quite poignant because I also had thought of it as a "trick" before, too.

I enjoyed this podcast the most out of any that I have listened to over the last few months! I had never thought about how our surroundings could play such an important role in healing or mental wellbeing. I hope that more places that promote healing can incorporate some of these ideas into their facilities in the future. I think anything that can help us heal without the use of drugs or invasive proceedures should be respected and used. Thank you for airing this show and letting us learn some of these things that are so important in life.

Voices on the Radio

is research director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. She was formerly at the National Institutes of Health. Her books include Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well Being and The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health & Emotions.

Production Credits

Host/Producer: Krista Tippett

Senior Editor: Trent Gilliss

Senior Producer: Lily Percy

Technical Director/Producer: Chris Heagle

Coordinating Producer: Stefni Bell

Supporters of Esther Sternberg — The Science of Healing Places

Funding provided in part by the Nour Foundation.

apples